Power in Words(?)   3 comments

In the last post I started, The Dead Language, I made the point that the use of Latin, and non-colloquial speech in general, separated medical discourse from the patients its supposed to help. Now that we are reading about a group that is actively trying to take this discourse back, I thought it might be interesting to play devil’s advocate and argue against both this book and my previous post.

Its hard on the surface to find a problem with breaking down the complex language of medicine into a form that the average consumer can easily understand. However, oversimplification can be just as dangerous as over-complication.

It is a popular belief that the term “cancer” applies to a single entity that happens to manifest itself in various parts of the body, i.e. breast cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, etc. However, as is demonstrated in this PhD comic, the term “cancer” applies to a whole host of diseases, with an even larger variety of causes and associated symptoms. People often complain that we have invested millions to find the “cure for cancer” with no results when in fact we have found several cures, treatments and even vaccines for a variety of these diseases.

This oversimplification ironically complicates an already difficult task. As the comic points out, cancer research agencies cannot go out and ask for donations without reframing their research in the rhetoric that the general public understands, collecting to “find the cure” rather than to “find the protocols”. This might seem trivial; after all, what difference does it make if non-scientists understand how cancer research works?

It might not ultimately matter all that much in cancer research, but this same oversimplification might be to blame for the increase in mothers refusing to give their children immunizations. The testing process involved in finding causation between medicine and symptoms in the patient is far more complex than anti-vaccine activists like Jenny McCarthy make it out to be, but by rhetorically oversimplifying the process, its easy for people to strongly believe that vaccines are doing more harm than good based on one faulty study. This could obviously expand into other issues, not the least of which being “cyberchondria”, the consequence of having people self-diagnose with the false impression that symptoms always equal specific diseases.

Am I saying that the writers of Our Bodies,  Ourselves began the philosophy of oversimplification that led to these problems? Not at all. Oversimplification seems to be the norm in all forms of media now; blaming one book for this would be impossible. What these women did was invaluable in giving women back some power over their bodies that medical science had stolen by treating the patient like she herself is the disease. I only ask that now that we have this agency, is it right to keep the conversation simple?

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Posted October 12, 2010 by capochetta in Uncategorized

3 responses to “Power in Words(?)

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  1. The process that Wells analyzes, and the final products, certainly do not seem like examples of oversimplification to me. Why assume that just because something is written for a lay audience that it’s oversimplified? In some ways the “medical” material was clearly complexified.

  2. Dear Capochetta,

    I’m with Blake here. The BWHBC, especially in early editions, presented information that was much more complex than anything else available. And if you search the current OBOS website for cancer information, you won’t find a watered-down account (see http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/). There’s a difference between making something accessible and making it simple; I think this problem was worked out in the 1973 edition.

  3. “Am I saying that the writers of Our Bodies, Ourselves began the philosophy of oversimplification that led to these problems?”

    I thought I was being clear that I was not accusing Our Bodies, Ourselves of doing this, but taking the concept of “lets write this for a wider audience” and problematizing it.

    This came up in class when we discussed the shift from the self-published versions to the more mainstream ones. The feminist/liberation message (which had been central to the first books) had to be removed to appeal to a wider audience. Now instead of a tool for a certain political movement, the books have lost their context, leaving their advise open to a reader’s own contextualization.

    Again, I was playing devil’s advocate, not accusing these books of leading us somewhere but asking us to consider where the idea of “popular medicine” could lead or where it has lead in other movements.

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