The Internet is Changing Who Can Conduct Research and How Quickly That Information Spreads, But It's Important to Be Skeptical Too
When he was 15, Jack Andraka ("the Edison of our time?") created an inexpensive device that could tell the difference between the blood of mice that had human pancreatic tumors grafted onto them and those that did not.
This achievement set the internet ablaze and Jack Andraka went on to give TED talks, including one viewed over 3.5 million times.
But did a 15 year old working on his family computer really outwit the established medical researchers?
As Matthew Herper explained in a cautionary January 8th, 2014 piece in Forbes: "[Jack] Andraka’s test can tell a mouse with a human tumor growing on it from one without. But can it tell the blood of someone with an inflamed pancreas or gallstones from another person with cancer? After all that work is done, there will still be a need for prospective clinical trials, the ultimate test in which people are randomized to get the test – or not. At the end of the day, does getting the [Andraka] test make you healthier? There’s a long path between building a tool to detect a protein in the blood — which is what Andraka started to do — and creating a diagnostic test. We’re doing him no favors by pretending otherwise."
So, while there's much to praise about Jack Andraka, and much to be said in favor of the research that he and others around the world are achieving using free online tools like Google and Wikipedia, it's important to remember that the web also tends to popularize and spread hero's journey stories (where a call to adventure leads an everyday person into undiscovered country, where great challenges await, and ultimately the hero returns home, with new knowledge and insights that change everything...).
Now that we are no longer as reliant on paper for our news stories, and short films increasingly have become how we learn about innovations, perhaps we need to re-embrace skepticism.
In our appetite for cool stories, we shouldn't forget to fact-check - or ask if important details have been cut out or "papered-over."
As Matthew Herper wrote in Forbes: "By taking a teenager’s excitement and using it to turn him into a folk hero, TED and many, many media organizations [trying to appeal to an internet generation?] including my own have provided false hope to cancer patients and given the general population a distorted view of how medical science works."