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The New York Times says I'm going to die.

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a whole lot of knowledge can be killer. This is the lesson I have learned since becoming deeply embedded in the War on Pseudoscience, and the lesson I remember each time I see a myth, con, or legend bolstered by way of the Internet.

To paraphrase the great scholar Homer (Simpson), you could use the Internet to prove anything that’s even remotely true. With enough Googling or enough hopping from Wiki page to Wiki page, you can find the evidence you need to support just about any crazed semi-thought you have floating through the nether-regions of your brain. Take, for instance, my experience this morning.

It began innocently enough, with a bit of browsing the New York Times online science section. They’re just about always good for little quickie articles on a common science question, like whether or not heat is good for lower back pain (yep). I happened across one article on whether or not early baldness in men is an indicator of an early demise. According to a 1998 Danish study, the answer is no. The article went on to mention that early graying or wrinkles are also nothing to worry about. “That’s nice,” I sighed.

The next paragraph mentioned one of the other characteristics of aging that tested negative: arcus senilis, described as a ring around the cornea. “Odd,” I thought. “I have something like that.” In fact, I was just staring at it the other day, trying to imagine whether or not the green-ish blobs made my blue-grey eyes a more or less interesting color. It’s a trait I always kind of liked about myself, owing in part to an eye doctor who mentioned it to me back in high school. He made it sound a little exotic, a little striking. That A.) he was the first to ever mention it and B.) to notice it he had to stare at my eyeball on a practically molecular level through a large machine did little to negate my hidden pleasure.

So, while I was surprised this was usually a result of aging, I was happy to hear it had no effect on my lifespan. Then I read the very last sentence of the article:

Arcus senilis was significantly correlated with a shorter life span in women.

Quickly, Hypochondria Girl, to the Google-mobile!

Searching for sites on arcus senilis led me to a 1980 study that found “an increased risk of coronary artery disease” in men with the condition under 40. Not only did that not answer my concerns as a woman under 40, but it raised even more questions about whether to believe a 25-year old peer-reviewed study or a three-day old quickie New York Times article.

As I searched, I silently cursed my eye doctor for failing to mention that my eyeballs could be sending S.O.S. signals. What kind of quack would withhold this kind of information from a patient?

The next stop was Wikipedia, which informed me that arcus senilis usually occurs in the elderly, usually indicates cholesterol problems, and can be a sign of eye trouble when it occurs monolaterally; but I’m only 26, I have great cholesterol, and my eye blobs came as a matched set. However, the article also notes that the condition is known as arcus juvenilis when occuring in younger folks like me. Back to Google.

When searching “arcus juvenilis,” the first link to catch my eye drops the phrase “fish-eye disease,” which begs further investigation. The paper is in French but the synopsis isn’t. No, the synopsis is written in medical jargon, in which I am less than fluent. I get the idea that this family with arcus juvenilis lacked “good” cholesterol but overall were doing okay in the cardiovascular disease department. That’s all well and good, but what the hell is fish-eye? Is that what I have? “That’s even worse than ‘arcus juvenilis’,” I think to myself as I see the romance of my green pupil-auras melt before my very fish-eyes.

It is at this point, with my browser bending under the weight of two dozen tabbed web sites, that I looked back over what I had learned thus far. Fish-eye. Cholesterol. Age. Cornea. I stopped. I performed a simple Google image search. I remembered that a cornea is not a pupil. I immediately forgave my childhood eye doctor and turned my disdain toward my elementary school biology teachers.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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17 Comments

  1. My GP hates when I say, "I read x on the Internet…" But so far we've always matched up, but as you say, it may take 24 tabs of cross-checking to get there.

    I'm still working on Hypochondria-Googling for Cat/Kitten Diseases. :-/

  2. My wife diagnoses herself with a rare terminal disease almost weekly thanks to the intarweb. The first thing I ask is "Was it from a medical research university or a geocities page?"

  3. Dan, I was actually going to, but I apparently don't have access to a cropping mechanism here at work. However! I just figured out a way that could work. I'll edit in the highest res photo of my eyeball that I have available right now…

  4. I'm sorry, but if my gf had fish-eye i'd be like… whoa, whoa… what is that!? I'm sorry, i can't be with you, it's just noticeable enough for me to be disgusted out of my mind. Ya know… if i look really closely….

    Aw… Josh, you made her put a frowny face emoticon up there…

  5. 'Ere, don't cephalopods at least have a logically constructed eye, wherein the optic nerve attaches to the retina from behind? Thus eliminating the blind spot?

    Maybe we could convince you to have "Octopus Eye" instead of "Fish Eye."

    Or maybe "Nautilus Eye." That sounds a bit nicer.

  6. This afternoon at school (to pick the kids, not some intellectual mission, mind you) a bee tried to land in my right ear. You know, I am concerned about bee population, so I kindly waved it away, but my Ray Ban "tom-cruise-look-alikes" somehow fell, and the left glass shattered. I thought "my eyes…".

    Rebecca, I think we have something special!

  7. awwww… Now that we can see her eye (cute I must say), we can all be relieved that Rebecca will still be with us for years to come and continue to enlighten us on the wonderful world of skepticism…

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