Health Is Social

Infusing Social Media into Healthcare


The Open Web.

The Wisdom of the Crowd.

These are a few of the buzz-phrases that have infected Healthcare discussions over the last few years. I know some smart people who glorify the idea of Crowdsourcing, and it’s rather sad.

The idea of Crowdsourcing – that we can arrive at solutions, approximations of solutions, or sentiments about solutions – sounds wonderful. But at its root, it constitutes a dangerous emerging mythology. It’s a mythology that has Silicon Valley and tech bloggers by the grip. Crowdsourcing has become one of the pseudoscientific, Retweetable fodder found on TED Talks and TED MedX. I long stayed away from these talks – and I’m happy that I’m not associated with them, now that The Onion has them nailed. It was only a matter of time that these conferences, along with their jingoistic hypomanias, would receive the mockery they deserve.

Anyhoo, today, more than ever, we need Science – not mythology – in Healthcare.

I ask you: what, exactly, is the mechanism of Crowdsourcing that would make it work? Does Crowdsourcing have some inherent magical core that somehow arrives at the right solution to a problem? What are the fundamental laws of physics that govern these mechanics?

Oh. I see. Can’t answer those questions, huh? Well that’s a problem indeed.

You see, what has happened in Medicine and Healthcare has happened elsewhere in Social Media: a word offering a promise and a hope for democracy has been taken at face value with no critical questioning.


Yes, Crowdsourcing may work: but only under very limited conditions under a limited set of variables – and even then, the results require validation of some kind.

[Video Link if it's not showing in your browser of bad choice.]

To simply generalize Crowdsourcing as possessing some universal power to solve problems or help populations of researchers collaborate better or bring forth more democracy into the world – well, that’s what’s called the logical fallacy of Overgeneralization.

The error which the proponents of Crowdsourcing commit is that they misunderstand and mis-apply the neuronal foundation of consciousness. That is, they assume that just because our consciousness arrives out of the collective dynamics of individual neurons (which are not conscious themselves), so too can a similar kind of consciousness (or Wisdom of the Crowds) emerge in other contexts.

But that’s a fatal leap of logic. The Web is not a conscious entity, nor will it ever. Nor is a group of human brains – a crowd is not a consciousness. An aggregation of individual brains, thrown together into some mass of size N, does not ex nihilo produce quantum leaps in problem-solving.

The consciousnesses which our brains produce arise not simply out of a critical mass of dynamically interacting neurons, but out of the evolutionary design-spaces of how those interactions work.

Similarly, a Crowdsourced solution – if it exists – doesn’t arise out of a mass of individuals. No, *if* it works, it works because of the right kind of foundational design-space that allows it to work.

Here’s the fundamental danger of the misinterpretation of crowdsourcing’s role in the Healthcare: as more and more people are duped into the belief that Crowdsourcing has more value than individual thought, and effort, and reason, then we will end up placing the self into siege. I ask you: is not the ultimate purpose of Healthcare to liberate an individual from the collective sieges of pathologies?

This is not a time for the individual to surrender her genius, passion, and discipline to Open-sourced algorithms of Close-minded Crowds. That we live in times where technologies can help us to extend what we can do is the very reason why we must become even more individuated, not less.

There comes a time in a physician’s, a nurse’s, or a biochemist’s career when the solitude of the self rescues the truth from the threats of violent ignorance.

Why so many physicians, scientists, academicians, and others who should know much better believe in Crowdsourcing prima facie is beyond me.

If you’re a smart person and you blindly believe in Crowdsourcing, why stop there?

Why not just go all the way into mythology, believe in magic wands, and call forth all the Healthcare fairies to solve our problems at one fell swoop?

Yup, that aughta do it, Homer.




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  • Alan C. Viars

    Well stated Phil. I’ve particiapatred in several health-focused code-thons and developer challenges, and for the most part those ideas die right after the contest ends. I think the gov’t is trying get on the game and to tap better talent for less money. There needs to be something to propel these ideas further. $5k-$10k prize money is not going to cut it. I think those running these evens recognize this. Crowdsourcing to start in some situations, that convert into more long term contracts.