Recently SkepticalScience.com reprinted an interesting article: "Thinking is Power: The problem with 'doing your own research'” by Melanie Trecek-King Associate Professor of Biology at Massasoit Community College in Massachusetts, she also maintains the website Thinking is Power with a series called Don’t Trust Yourself.
The title and article caught my eye since I’m one of those who does a fair amount of my own “research” - someone who has also become leery of misleading labels and convinced of the importance of respecting definitions. Too often a group of people will be tossing around a term with everyone investing it with their own poetic license.
For example, poetically speaking I consider myself a “student of Earth,” but I don’t do any real research, any more than I’m a real Student.
Fact is, I’m a lifelong enthusiast who does homework, trying to learn what I can about my subject of the moment. It’s my honest curiosity that keeps me on the straight and narrow and defines the quality of my collective knowledge.
The serious college student, researcher, professor, scientist are on altogether different levels, ones that deserve to be recognized and respected by all enthusiasts. After all, they do all the hard work, they digest the data, coherently report on it and share their efforts with the rest of us - that's how we learn.
That’s why I think Melanie Trecek-King words are overdue and should be part of any young student’s reading list. They also belong on the enthusiast’s reading list because they make for a good self-evaluation checklist for those who fancy themselves lovers of learning and knowledge.
The professor’s article makes a fitting addition to my collection, and it gives me a chance to expand on her theme with the addition of some thoughts of my own, coming from the outside looking in, so to speak.
At first I wanted to select specific quotes, but her 900 word text is a concise whole that I couldn’t slice and dice without damaging, it deserves to be read in its entirety. I thank Professor Trecek-King for allowing me to repost her excellent article.
by Melanie Trecek-King
The phrase “do your own research” seems ubiquitous these days, often by those who don’t accept “mainstream” science (or news), conspiracy theorists, and many who fashion themselves as independent thinkers. On its face it seems legit. What can be wrong with wanting to seek out information and make up your own mind?
The problems with “doing your own research”
1. That’s not what research is.
Definitions matter. When scientists use the word “research,” they mean a systematic process of investigation. Evidence is collected and evaluated in an unbiased, objective manner, and those methods have to be available to other scientists for replication.
Conversely, when someone says they’re “doing their own research,” they mean using a search engine to find information that confirms what they already think is true. We are all prone to confirmation bias, and the effect is especially powerful when we want (or don’t want) to accept a conclusion.
Cc: Definitions matter.
Research is a complex project requiring defining goals, following rules and procedures along with long term single minded dedication, coupled with exhausting work that’s a test of one’s mettle.
When a layperson gets on the internet, we are simply “doing our homework.” Accumulating the information we want, in order to understand our subject of the moment, according to the whims of our mood.
College students must, step by step, master the entire field of a subject, and do so down to levels of detail that we ordinary mortals can’t fathom.
I find that reading peer reviewed papers is a very sobering experience because of the glimpses it affords me into the vast mountains of knowledge scientists have digested and are fluent with, while I’m lucky to barely grasp the rough outlines.
Work is demanded of the students and professors, while we enthusiasts get to make our own rules. That matters.
Of course, on the other hand, while enthusiasts can’t compete with the depth of a scientist or expert’s understanding, we can acquire a broader, if shallower, understanding of our human condition, which has its own merits.
Science as a process is an attempt to understand reality, and recognizes how biased and flawed the human brain is. That’s why real research is about trying to prove yourself wrong, not right.
Cc: I’ve tried to convey the same idea with the observation that,
Science is a set of rules for observing the Physical Reality we are embedded within as objectively as possible.
The rules are intended to distance our human ego as much as possible from the process and they are based on the unwritten understanding that we need each other to keep ourselves honest.
2. You’re not as smart as you think you are.
Unless you’re an expert in the field you’re “researching,” you’re almost certainly not able to fully understand the nuance and complexity of the topic. Experts have advanced degrees, published research, and years of experience in their sub-field. They know the body of evidence and the methodologies the researchers use. And importantly, they are aware of what they don’t know.
Can experts be wrong? Sure. but they’re MUCH less likely to be wrong than a non-expert.
Thinking one can “do their research” on scientific topics, such as climate change or mRNA vaccines, is to fool oneself. It’s an exercise in the Dunning-Kruger effect: you’ll be overconfident but wrong.
Yes, information is widely available. But it doesn’t mean you have the background knowledge to understand it. So know your limits.
Cc: In other words, we must appreciate that experts are always going to understand the subject better than a non-expert and we should take our own convictions with a grain of salt.
The process of science is messy
Science is messy. For example, climate change research involves experts from a variety of fields (e.g. earth sciences, life sciences, physical sciences) and settings (e.g. academia/government/industry), from nearly every country on earth, each looking at the issue using different methods. Their findings have to pass peer review, where other experts evaluate their work before it can be published.
The literature is also messy, as different studies provide different types and qualities of evidence. Different studies also might reach slightly different conclusions, especially if they use different methodologies. Findings that are replicated have stronger validity. And when the various lines of research converge on a conclusion, we can be more confident that the conclusion is trustworthy.
And then there’s the news, which tends to report on new, unique, or sensational findings, generally without the detail and nuance in the literature.
Cc: Left out is that there are also many dark money interests with full scale disinformation and slander campaigns constantly hammering away at the public. Agencies such as Fox News and OAN, Koch and friends are constantly refining their brainwashing machines, coordinated by their script run faux news broadcast messaging across all bandwidths.
The blatant disregard for honesty among the Republicans and super donors are legion, yet it seldom becomes the center of attention. Why?
All of this messiness can leave the public thinking that scientists “don’t know anything” and are “always changing their minds.” Or that you can believe whatever you want, as there’s “science” or a “study” or even an “expert” that supports what they want to be true.
Waiting for proof
Most people seem to understand that science is trustworthy. After all, we can thank science and resulting technology for our modern quality of life. Unfortunately, there’s much the public doesn’t understand about science, including the enduring myth that science proves.
Scientific explanations are never proven.
Instead, science is a process of reducing uncertainty. Scientists set out to disprove their explanations, and when they can’t, they accept them. Other scientists try to prove them wrong, too.
Cc: Beyond that, it’s common knowledge that mistakes are for learning.
(And scientists LOVE to disagree. Anyone who thinks scientists are able to conspire has never had a conversation with one.)
The best way for a scientist to make a name for themselves is to discover something unknown or disprove a longstanding conclusion.
Prof Alley gets passionate about the motivation of scientists.
The process of systematic disconfirmation is designed to root out confirmation bias. Those insisting on “scientific proof” before accepting well-established science are either misled or willfully using a fundamental characteristic of science to avoid accepting the science.
Why we should trust science and the experts
Cc: Right, but we also desperately need more regular people understanding what scientists and experts are finding out and explaining to the public. That requires an under-informed audience to take interest and do some homework for themselves.
Back to “researching.” The danger is that uninformed or dishonest people can cherry pick individual studies, or even an expert, to support a particular conclusion or to make it look like the science is more uncertain than it is…especially if they don’t want to accept it. And if we’re being real, many who “do their own research” are doing so to deny scientific knowledge. But that’s the perfect storm for being misled, and for many scientific issues the price of being wrong is just too high.
Ultimately knowledge is a community effort. We don’t think alone…. and that’s what makes humans a successful species. The problem is that we fail to recognize where our knowledge ends and the community’s begins. That’s why for anyone who isn’t an expert in a particular field, our best chance at knowledge is to trust what the majority of experts in that area say is true. No “research” involved.
Cc: I think another important lesson is that serious homework requires a proactive commitment, a spirit of honest curiosity and desire to achieve an accurate understanding, plus a lot of critical thinking skills.
Be open to your own limitations, be self-skeptical, it’s okay to doubt yourself, it forces you to strive that much harder to work at one’s homework and come up with fairly complete answers to your questions.
It also involves a willingness to suffer the slings and arrows of making mistakes, being wrong - we learn that’s the ticket to the best lessons in life. Face the mistakes, take the time to learn why, understand what happened, let the experience be your teacher.
So, learning involves mistakes and can be painful, new information can shock old assumptions, with emotional undercurrents to all of it. Don’t be blind to your feelings, realize hurt feelings and hard times are part of the learning process and living, be steadfast, keep working your problem, process new information.
I’ve found it amazing how the most shocking new findings, turn out, with new information and some hindsight, to be rather self evident.
We live and learn and the world around us takes on every greater clarity and fascination.
To learn more
Thinking Is Power: Don’t be fooled…Fact Check!
Further articles in Professor Melanie Trecek-King’s series:
Professor's reading list:
The Logic of Science: 5 reasons why anecdotes are totally worthless
The Body of Evidence: Anecdotes
Cranky Uncle: Anecdotes and hydroxychloroquine
Professor's reading list:
The Atlantic, The Christmas the Aliens Didn’t Come
Opinion Science Podcast, Cognitive Dissonance: A Crash Course
New Yorker, Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds
The Atlantic, The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in the Pandemic
Professor's reading list:
Wikipedia: Blind men and the elephant
Professor's reading list:
TEDx Philip Fernbach, Why Do We Believe Things that Aren’t True