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In which John discusses the saga of Dr. NeverSneezer Scrooge, and how the ridiculous information we encounter shapes us and the world we share.
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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. 

So in addition to our long-running collaboration here on Vlogbrothers, we have a podcast, Dear Hank and John, where we answer listener questions, provide dubious advice, and give people all the week's news from both Mars and AFC Wimbleton. Making the podcast is one of the highlights of my week, because it's two uninterrupted hours with my brother, and it is always been so joyful, until 46 days ago when someone asked a question that burrowed into my brain and has refused to let me go. 

A listener named Sarah wrote in to say that eight years earlier, when she was diagnosed with asthma, her doctor, a licensed physician, asked her how often she sneezed. Sarah responded that she didn't sneeze that much, just a normal amount, and then the doctor said, "Sneezing is not normal. I never sneeze."

And then Sarah went on to say that for the last eight years, every time she sneezes, she thinks about this doctor who told her that sneezing is not normal. And now, having heard this story, every time I sneeze, I also think about this doctor. In this respect, I am not alone, because since the podcast first aired, I have heard from hundreds of people who say that every time they sneeze they think, "Sneezing is not normal. I never sneeze." 

I suppose part of what makes this so sticky in my mind is trying to fathom what this doctor thinks when they do sneeze. Right, like if you believe the sentence, "I never sneeze," how do you make sense of the times when you do sneeze? Do you pass it off as a fluke? Do you think to yourself, "That wasn't a real sneeze, that was more of a sneeze-adjacent phenomenon."? Or do you see your sneezing as some sort of like moral weakness, or character failing to be hidden from the public?

And then part of the reason I can't stop thinking about this, Hank, is because you named this person Dr. NeverSneezer Scrooge, which is just such a perfect joke. How could I ever let that leave my brain? 

But I think there's something else going on too, which is that ridiculous and absurd and outrageous statements just stay with me. They penetrate in a way that carefully considered, nuanced statements don't. Like if this doctor had said, "Sneezing can be one symptom of seasonal allergies, do you also experience a stuffy nose?" I wouldn't know about this doctor, and I certainly wouldn't think about them every time I sneeze. And in our attention economy, where the mere act of capturing attention is on some level valuable, saying, "I never sneeze," is certainly gonna capture more attention than like, being a good doctor.

Similarly, people who say outrageous stuff online can capture a lot of attention. Like if you say that Stalin was underrated, or that it isn't necessary to wash your lower legs, or that Grease 2 is the canonical Grease movie, you will get lodged inside of many people's minds. Now you won't be thought of in primarily a positive way, but still, there is value to be found in saying the stupidest possible things in the loudest possible way, which just to state the obvious, is not a good way to organize an attention economy. 

But that, to use some doctor terms, is a diagnosis and not a treatment because I don't know the treatment. Like how am I to free myself from thinking, "Sneezing is not normal. I never sneeze," every time I sneeze? Did I make the world worse, albeit in a very minor way, by sharing Sarah's story of her ridiculous sneeze-denying physician? Am I making the world worse now, by sharing that story with more people via a YouTube video? Those aren't rhetorical questions. I don't know what to do about the fact that what grabs my attention in a crowded information landscape is always gonna be what looks scary or different or outrageous or ridiculous. 

I do realize this is a lot of weight to put on, "Sneezing isn't normal. I never sneeze," but I genuinely dislike the fact that some random doctor saying something ridiculous has reshaped my sneezing experience forever. Until quite recently, I thought of the internet and IRL as being fundamentally separate spaces. Like when I was young, what I liked about the internet was precisely that it was not IRL. But in truth, there is no bright line between real life and cyberspace, and the outrageous ridiculousnesses we encounter, whether online or off, end up shaping the people we are and the world we share, and I don't know what to do about that. 

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.