The Access To Knowledge

One of the greatest things about the Internet is that it has democratized access to information.  Most academic journals are available online, some of which are even available for free.  Wikipedia has improved, in most cases, to provide reliable information on most subjects.  There are plenty of other sites that provide scholarly level information out there.  Then there are sites like Khan Academy that make basic education in a variety of subjects available for free.  And if you can’t find the information online, you can order virtually any book online through retailers like Amazon.

In other words, you can have access to the same educational materials that train professionals in any field.  Want to learn gastroenterology?  The books used to train residents and fellows can be ordered online.  Want to learn engineering?  The materials are available online too.  Want to be an administrative lawyer?  Yep, law can be found online too.  You can find most legal codes online and with a bit of searching, you can even find the relevant cases too.

Here’s what none of these books will teach you.  They won’t teach you the mindset of how to think like a member of a profession.  The materials alone don’t teach the academic or professional discipline. Reading statutes, regulations, and cases may provide some insight on the law, but you won’t necessarily grasp the legal principles or reasoning, much less how a single law in and of itself interacts with all of the other laws out there.  Likewise, one can buy all of the cardiology texts out there and become quite knowledgeable about the heart while at the same time failing to realize that the heart is but one interdependent organ in an entire human body.

The democratization of information has done wonders for our society.  Yet, one of the biggest challenges is that mere access to information doesn’t necessarily mean understanding the information.  Nor does it mean placing said information into its proper context.  If you don’t believe me, look at the number of self-appointed experts who have “done their research” posting online. Cherry-picking from a discredited study doesn’t make you an expert on autism and vaccines. An undergraduate degree combined with a medical degree is where you learn to skeptically examine scientific claims, understand how the human body works, and put that knowledge together to treat patients. Likewise, merely cutting and pasting a statute that you found via Google doesn’t make you the next Clarence Darrow.  As much of a cliche as it is, “learning to think like a lawyer” is exactly what law school does — teaching legal research, teaching legal writing, and ultimately, teaching enough legal reasoning so that you realize that a case is rarely won by merely cutting and pasting a statute in and of itself.

Information is great.  Education is more than information.  Education is the process of learning how to process, synthesize, contextualize, and use the information outside of a vacuum. And that’s why there’s such a market for the coffee mugs that say “Don’t confuse your Google search with my professional license.”  Whether it’s an EMS certification, a professional engineer’s license, or a subspecialty in medicine, thinking that reading the books and journals on your own makes you the equivalent of a licensed professional is hubris to the point of danger.

How does this apply to my usual writing about my self-described expensive hobby of EMS?  Quite simply, our field has a fair amount of self-appointed experts in anything vaguely and tangentially connected to EMS.  While there are many in our field who worship at the altars of dogma, vaguely defined “experience,” and the even worse defined “how we do it in the field,” probably the most dangerous are so-called leaders in our field who routinely opine on subjects in which they have knowledge, but not the education to contextualize, synthesize, or harmonize the knowledge outside of what they just read and parroted.  If you don’t believe me, look at how many places immediately remove (or add) an intervention or medication based solely on one article that’s been making the rounds of the EMS community.

In conclusion, the summation of human wisdom in any field is rarely going to be found in a Facebook post or a blog post.  As the Romans would say, “caveat emptor.”  As Reagan would’ve said, “Trust, but verify.”


  1. Gene Gandy says:

    Wes, this is your best post to date! You explain the concept of professionalism in a very clear way.

    Tonight I graded a student’s paper. He had done great research and presented a plethora of facts. Unfortunately, he was not able to put them together into a cohesive concept. He focused on trivia in some cases and missed smoking guns in others.

    The process of extended education should result in the ability to evaluate facts from a global perspective. This is exactly what isolated research does not do. A study that seems to be astoundingly great suddenly pales when one discovers that it has been roundly discredited. One only finds that out when one religiously seeks to find all the information extant on an issue. Only experience and due diligence allows that to happen.

    Many readers may not understand what the term-of-art “due diligence” means. Although usually thought of as a legal term, it has great application in medicine. In fact, it is almost the definition of standard of care.

    One should exercise due diligence in research and in patient care.

    Professionalism is a system of thinking that demands that all aspects of one’s craft are to be examined and improved, continually. The true professional works no shifts. Life is the shift.

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