A long time ago, when I was deep in my research career, I spent a lot of time answering biology and physiology questions online in some of the pet newsgroups. I was somewhat naïve and still believed people would always make rational choices when presented with facts.
(Stop laughing. I still believe it. I just know it’s more about how I want the world to work rather than how the world actually works. The facts say I’m wrong that people are always rational actors.)
I learned, though, that there were a lot of people who didn’t want facts. They wanted their biases confirmed and their choices validated. It taught me a lot about online arguing. Sometimes it wasn’t worth arguing with people, it wasn’t worth confronting their errors and biases because they weren’t in a place to hear the facts.
There was one case, though, where I didn’t speak up. And someone lost a beloved pet because I didn’t choose to confront the woo. It didn’t mean I confronted woo more often, but it did mean that I would address bad or poor biology.
I’m currently watching a online friend drive down a road where she is buying into a lot of bad biology. It’s clearly desperation. She isn’t a rational actor because she’s been dealing with this illness for years. I am struggling with interfering. I don’t think what she’s doing is actively harmful, and it’s clear medicine doesn’t have an answer for the problem.
I don’t want to increase her pain or her stress. She’s doing the best she can do. I don’t think this will result in permanent damage. But what if I’m wrong? What if a quiet word about how she shouldn’t trust this website to solve all her problems will prevent harm? Is challenging her conceptions themselves harmful to where she is now?
If only people actually were rational. Then providing facts would not be such a confrontation.