The great thing about the Internet is no one's voice is louder than anyone else's — which allows people with different perspectives and backgrounds to share their opinions freely. But, when it comes to health, this freedom becomes a double-edged sword. More often these days, people who dispute scientific findings passionately and loudly are mistaken for experts, gathering like-minded Internet trolls around them who contribute their own voices to advance their collective cause. Of course, this invites others who think they're defending "the facts" to chime in even louder, often resorting to cheap attacks and extreme language in order to drown out their opponents. The result? It's hard to take anyone seriously — and even harder to know who to believe.
Take circumcision, for instance. Although many people in this country associate it with the Jewish faith, it's actually a practice that developed independently in a wide range of cultures over the last 2,500 years. Of course, it's gained a lot of mainstream ground in the last few decades, as pediatricians have learned more about the potential health benefits. Circumcision has been shown to decrease the chances of getting a UTI and might play a role in reducing the risk of prostate cancer and STIs, including HIV. Just yesterday, in fact, a new study from the Mayo Clinic looking at existing circumcision data found that the health benefits outweigh any potential risks "by over 100 to 1."
But there are some who believe the risks of circumcision are underreported. In particular, an outspoken online community known as Intact America (which is almost as great a name as H.O.O.P. — see video above) has taken up the fight to ban the practice, providing informational resources and putting on events like the "2014 Genital Autonomy Symposium" to convince parents not to circumcise their children.
Yes, the validity of proposing a mandate banning parents from circumcising their children is questionable, at best. But, some circumcision advocates are not much better. Brian Morris, the author of yesterday's Mayo Clinic study, happens to be a well-known proponent of circumcision and told The Daily Beast yesterday that he believes circumcision should be performed on all baby boys — that the decision should be just as automatic as choosing to vaccinate a child. As Morris says, "Denial of infant male circumcision is denial of his rights to good health, something that all responsible parents should consider carefully."
Much of the available science suggests that circumcision could do much more good than harm. There have, however, been studies that suggest circumcision decreases sexual sensitivity —including one large-scale study of adult men in Belgium. Though the Belgian study found that circumcision might result in a slight decrease in penile sensitivity, the research was questioned by critics who said the sample was flawed. So, further research is needed.
And, Morris' position no doubt is based on his data, which indicates circumcision can reduce rates of several STIs. But, it's important to remember that it's not often pure data that drives parents' medical decisions for their children — and that scientists can have agendas as well. Ultimately, research has shown that throwing your "hard facts" at people in an argument usually just makes them run even faster in the other direction. In a study that provided anti-vax parents with scientific literature indicating vaccines were safe, that info sometimes had the opposite effect, actually strengthening their resolve to not vaccinate their children. Now, circumcision is a distinct issue from vaccination, but the point is that no one wants to feel condescended to. A quick look at the comments section of The Daily Beast article is proof enough that reactions to Dr. Morris' attempts at "educating" people was more sensational than scholarly.
But, why? It could be that heavy-handed didactic approaches alienate parents, making them defensive toward what they see as patronizing advice from people accusing them of raising their kids incorrectly. Ironically, working so hard to convince someone a practice is safe might unintentionally make it seem suspect. In the end, it's emotion and belief — both of which can be influenced by swirling, reactionary Internet discourse — that dictate many important life decisions. And, advocates on both sides would do well to remember that.
Of course, the Internet is a great platform for sharing what we learn about health with the world at large. But, we should be mindful of the fact that packaging matters. Instead of telling people what we think they should or shouldn't do with their kids, instead of yelling at the top of our lungs about how wrong they are, maybe we should focus on presenting what we think we know, calmly and respectfully.