Ruminating on Michael Polanyi's epistemic model as developed and conveyed by Dr. Esther Lightcap Meek in the book Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People

Saturday, February 11, 2006

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You Real Bad

This past July 4th weekend, I turned my ankle in a little hole. It seemed lightly sprained, but no worse -- at first. Over next few days, the pain got worse and worse, and the joint became severely swollen, to the point that I could hardly drive, nevermind walk. The pain became excruciating, and lasted for months.

The sprain kept me from working as much as I otherwise would have, and that put me in such a financial bind that I avoiding going to the doctor. I was certain it wasn't broken, and several people assured me that sprains can take a surprisingly long time to heal. By late October, I was finally beginning to be able to walk slowly.

No sooner was I starting to get around again, when I stubbed the big toe on the other foot. I was making breakfast, and simply turned around too fast and slammed it into the corner of the stove. My whole foot swelled up, and I was back on crutches, enduring more searing pain.

When that failed to clear up in a couple of weeks, I finally broke down and saw a doctor. He was puzzled by it. The toe was not broken, but in some ways it acted like it was. He decided to send me for an MRI. The results of the test were clear: gout. Yes, simple gout. This was a podiatrist, mind you. And I had listed gout as among my previously known foot problems on my chart. He was so embarrassed about having to do an MRI just to diagnose a simple case of common gout, especially in a guy who had a know history of it, that he didn't even charge me for the MRI.

I took a a prescription medication for it for a few days, and the problem cleared up completely. No doubt, the reason my lightly sprained ankle had given me so much trouble for so long was also due to gout attacking the weak joint. The damaged soft tissues and the sharp crystals formed in them by the gout had fed each other and kept each other from healing.

Why didn't it occur to me early on that gout was involved? Why didn't my dad, who has suffered similar problems, think to attribute it to that? Why did my chiropractor not make the connection? Most of all, why didn't an experienced podiatrist diagnose it correctly right away?

We were all led astray, prevented from integrating the clues correctly, by a sort of false clue. The sprain and the stubbing incident pointed us in the wrong direction, effectively blinding us to everything else. I had never had a gout attack last nearly so long. Everyone else assumed, based on my testimony, that some kind of damage to the joint was the key culprit. In hindsight, it seems so obvious.

If the clue we consider most important calls our attention to look the wrong direction, it can make it incredibly difficult to integrate the remaining clues. And the result can be incredibly painful.

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