Poor awareness and the danger of very few representations

Some months ago, as part of the dementia articles that appear during the September Alzheimer frenzy, I saw an online newspaper article that (wrongly) gave a major symptom of dementia as “severe headache” in a boxed set of bullets. Curious, I read the article and discovered that the reporter had interviewed a dementia patient who also had a brain tumor. The detailed report did not claim headaches to be a dementia symptom but whoever formatted the article and added the box of bullets was probably a different person–someone in a hurry and with no knowledge of dementia.

I wondered about the persons reading the article, who may carry the impression that dementia results in a headache. And since then, I’ve been pondering about how much the accuracy and scope of representation matter for subjects where awareness is low.

I have worked in software organizations and consultancies and done assignments in a variety of settings, like manufacturing units and hospitals. If I read an article on these, I don’t get swayed by some dramatic fact; I place it in the context of what I know, and then decide how much weight to give this new input. But when I read something about a setting I know nothing about, my first tendency is to assume that what I read is both correct and representative, and it takes me a conscious effort to critically examine what I have read and to do fact-finding; I don’t have the energy for that often, and so the first (and probably faulty) impression stays.

So when I was a child and I saw movies showing cancer as the instant trope for death and dejection, as a hopelessness, I assumed that to be right. I even remember that when someone told me I was cancer, I was terrified I was about to die. (They meant the astrological sign). Similarly, I had mental pictures of bars and drinking (Helen-like dancers gyrating and drunk heroes sulking), of mental problems, and of zamindaars.

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