Do you suffer from the Lake Wobegon effect? Most of us do!
Many of you have heard of the fictional Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Humorist Garrison Keillor reports the news from Lake Wobegon on his traveling show “A Prairie Home Companion.” In Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average.”
Apparently, medical doctors suffer from the “Lake Wobegon effect.” In a study from the University of Wisconsin, “the vast majority of surgeons believed the mortality rate for their own patients to be lower than the average” (“Complications,” by Atul Gawande). Another study concluded that there’s no connection between accuracy and the confidence of physicians’ judgments.
Rather than indict physicians (to whom I actually owe my life), the larger picture is that “human judgment, like memory and hearing, is prone to systematic mistakes. The mind overestimates vivid dangers, falls into ruts, and manages multiple pieces of data poorly. It is swayed unduly by desire and emotion and even the time of day. It is affected by the order in which information is presented and how problems are framed” (Gawande). Basically, the point of Gawande’s book is the reality of human uncertainty and fallibility. He also makes the point that there is no escape for physicians from trusting their judgment – in the absence of data or, at times, even in the face of data that would dictate an opposite course of action.
Gawande took a microscope to the medical profession. I think that God takes a microscope to all of our lives, and I’m grateful for His grace.
We all do well to heed the words of Romans 12:3-4: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” Part of our “human predicament” in this life is that we “see through a glass darkly” or “but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Fortunately, there is benefit from imitating another surgeon, Dr. Ben Carson, who prays over all medical decisions and throughout every surgery (see “Gifted Hands,” by Ben Carson).
I highly recommend both “Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science,” by Atul Gawande and Ben Carson’s “Gifted Hands.”