Don’t “Do Your Own Research”

August 3, 2020

The anti-face-mask movement: Will fines and penalties work?

Ethan Siegel in Forbes:

“Research both sides and make up your own mind.” It’s simple, straightforward, common sense advice. And when it comes to issues like vaccinations, climate change, and the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, it can be dangerous, destructive, and even deadly. The techniques that most of us use to navigate most of our decisions in life — gathering information, evaluating it based on what we know, and choosing a course of action — can lead to spectacular failures when it comes to a scientific matter.

The reason is simple: most of us, even those of us who are scientists ourselves, lack the relevant scientific expertise needed to adequately evaluate that research on our own. In our own fields, we are aware of the full suite of data, of how those puzzle pieces fit together, and what the frontiers of our knowledge is. When laypersons espouse opinions on those matters, it’s immediately clear to us where the gaps in their understanding are and where they’ve misled themselves in their reasoning. When they take up the arguments of a contrarian scientist, we recognize what they’re overlooking, misinterpreting, or omitting. Unless we start valuing the actual expertise that legitimate experts have spent lifetimes developing, “doing our own research” could lead to immeasurable, unnecessary suffering.

Let’s start with a simple, low-stakes example: fluoridated drinking water. On the one hand, fluoride is a simple ion that shows up in various concentrations, including naturally through calcium fluoride, in bodies of water all across the world. When humans ingest too little of it, particularly at a young age, it leads to weakened tooth enamel and greater rates of cavities; when humans ingest too much of it, it leads to tooth discoloration and various severities of dental fluorosis. In extreme cases, significantly too much or too little fluoride can also lead to other problems, such as osteoporosis (with too little) or skeletal fluorosis (with too much).

In most places in the United States and Canada, our drinking water is fluoridated at a specific level that’s safe and effective for humans of all ages. In places like Colorado Springs, CO, significant amounts of fluoride are removed from the water, bringing the levels down to acceptable values; in other places, like New York City, NY, fluoride is added to bring the levels up to acceptable values. Controlling the fluoride levels of water is a safe and effective public health intervention, reducing dental caries in children by 40% where it is implemented versus places where it isn’t implemented.

And yet, there are major cities in the world, like Portland, OR or Calgary, Alberta, where the public or city council, respectively has voted (in the case of Portland, repeatedly) to not add fluoride to their drinking water. As expected, the typical cavity rates in children — when controlled for socioeconomic demographics — are about 40% higher than in places where the water is fluoridated, hitting those of lower economic demographics the hardest. The idea that “our water is natural” and “adding fluoride isn’t” has proven more powerful in swaying public opinion in these locations than the science supporting fluoride’s safety and effectiveness. To the voting public, a fear of chemicals and an affinity for what feels natural was more compelling than the dental health of poor children, despite near-universal support from dental health professionals. 

There’s an old saying that I’ve grown quite fond of recently: you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into. When most of us “research” an issue, what we are actually doing is:

  • formulating an initial opinion the first time we hear about something,
  • evaluating everything we encounter after that through that lens of our gut instinct,
  • finding reasons to think positively about the portions of the narrative that support or justify our initial opinion,
  • and finding reasons to discount or otherwise dismiss the portions that detract from it.

Of course, that’s not what we think we’re doing. We think of ourselves as the heroes of our stories: cutting through misinformation and digging up the real truth on the matter. We think that, just by applying our brainpower and our critical reasoning skills, we can discern whose expert opinions are trustworthy and responsible. We think that we can see through who’s a charlatan and a fraud, and we can tell what’s safe and effective from what’s dangerous and ineffective.

Except, for almost all of us, we can’t. Even those of us with excellent critical thinking skills and lots of experience trying to dig up the truth behind a variety of claims are lacking one important asset: the scientific expertise necessary to understand any finds or claims in the context of the full state of knowledge of your field. It’s part of why scientific consensus is so remarkably valuable: it only exists when the overwhelming majority of qualified professionals all hold the same consistent professional opinion. It truly is one of the most important and valuable types of expertise that humanity has ever developed.

But only if we listen to it. It’s absolutely foolish to think that you, a non-expert who lacks the very scientific expertise necessary to evaluate the claims of experts, are going to do a better job than the actual, bona fide experts of separating truth from fiction or fraud. When we “do the research for ourselves,” we almost always wind up digging in deeper to our own knee-jerk positions, rather than deferring to the professional opinions of the consensus of experts. 

When it comes to fluoridated drinking water, the consequences may only be mild: cosmetic, barely visible markings on your teeth in the case of over-fluoridation or a slight weakening of your tooth enamel in the case of under-fluoridation. But in the cases of a number of public policy measures — vaccinations, climate change, or the science of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes in humans, COVID-19 — the stakes are much higher. The consequences of getting it wrong can lead to permanent consequences and may even be a life-or-death matter for many.

When left to their own devices, a substantial fraction of people will choose not to fully vaccinate themselves or their children. In some schools, up to 60% of children can be unvaccinated against preventable diseases such as measles, leading to a resurgence of diseases that should be eradicated. Many parents have a greater fear of adverse consequences from vaccines, despite the fact that — other than skin irritation at the injection sites — medical complications are extraordinarily rare (occurring in far less than 0.01% of patients) and occur no more frequently than random chance would indicate. 

The science overwhelmingly indicates that vaccines are one of the safest public health interventions ever undertaken by humanity. But if you “do your own research,” you can find a small percentage of online activists, and even a few medical professionals, who rail against the overwhelming science, pushing discredited claims, fear, and often unproven cures or supplements as well. This fraud-driven controversy created an enormous public health disaster that’s still ongoing today.

There is no excuse, with all the wonderful scientists and science communicators telling the truth about a whole slew of issues in our world, for people to seek out only the opinions that confirm their own biases. The best scientists in the world — even the ones who hold contrarian beliefs of their own — all agree that we should base our policies on the scientific consensus that we’ve achieved. When that consensus changes, evolves, or moves forward because we’ve learned more than we previously knew, we should correct course to follow that novel path instead.

But that requires a kind of transformation within yourself. It means that you need to be humble, and admit that you, yourself, lack the necessary expertise to evaluate the science before you. It means that you need to be brave enough to turn to the consensus of scientific experts and ask, legitimately, what we know at the present stage. And it means you need to be open-minded enough to understand that your preconceptions are quite likely to be wrong in some, many, or possibly even all ways. If we listen to the science, we can attempt to take the best path possible forward through the greatest challenges facing modern society. We can choose to ignore it, but if we do, the consequences will only increase in severity.


20 Responses to “Don’t “Do Your Own Research””

  1. J4Zonian Says:

    “through that lens of our gut instinct”
    If we want to change our direction, we need to get more knowledgable and sophisticated than that in our thinking. Psychology is a science first and last, with art in the middle, and our decisions are only going to be right when we base them on that research and the wisdom of experienced psychologists.

    The problem isn’t doing our own research, it’s not doing enough, good enough research. Even more, it’s being driven by fear, rage, shame, and intellectual laziness, and allowing our characterological biases to determine our conclusions.

    It starts a long time before our “initial” opinion about one issue. Our opinion on any issue can be determined to a remarkable degree of accuracy by someone who’s well-versed in psychology, long before we’ve even heard of it, and it wouldn’t hurt to be familiar with George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant.

    “There is no excuse, with all the wonderful scientists and science communicators telling the truth about a whole slew of issues in our world, for people to seek out only the opinions that confirm their own biases.”

    Whatever form the excuses take, the reason is always the psychological condition of civilizationized humanity. The seven things every citizen needs to know about to overcome it: reading, math, history, psychology, ecology, politics. And everyone needs to have done enough of their own psychological work, with help, to tell the difference between their stuff and the outside world.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      “our decisions are only going to be right when we base them on that research and the wisdom of experienced psychologists”. Sounds to me like your thinking of doing your own research into the research and the wisdom of experienced psychologists. You’re sailing pretty close to the wind there.

  2. neilrieck Says:

    I’ve share these before but will do so again. They are from the May-1 edition of the NPR program “ScienceFriday”

    We all remember seeing the top photo of a cop directing traffic while wearing a mask. I just started reading this book “Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History” which is a real shocker because I thought I knew the basic outlines of that pandemic but was woefully wrong. First off, almost every doctor or government official back then stated “you do not need a mask”. Meanwhile the Red Cross was the only organization saying that a mask would slow transmission which turned out to be true. You also had crazy people running around claiming that their constitutional rights were being violated. Others said “give me liberty or give me death” but they got both. Remember that this was during world war one so their were lots of parades accompanied by appeals to buy liberty bonds. Every time this happened, including during armistice celebrations in Europe or North America, a couple of hundred people died. There has been some dispute about the number of deaths because record keeping basically went out the window but here is my takeaway, if you include all the instances of influenza death from 1916 to 1919, the world total approaches 100 million (somewhere between 5% and 7% of the total population of Earth). BTW, there was a lot of denial because people were familiar with the flu; just not these second waves which were killers

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    As with all human cognitive flaws, they’re obvious in other people and they don’t apply to me.

    This is why I want kids to learn how human brains work, how we fool ourselves, and how we let others fool us. The only places education regularly addresses it is in upper-level courses for people studying to be scientists…and magic schools.

    • jimbills Says:

      Yep yep yep. The first step is to ALWAYS question one’s own biases, assumptions, and limitations – and that step is completely skipped over by far too many.

      • grindupbaker Says:

        You shouldn’t research your own biases. You should always have a bias expert (Greenman is probably the best) inform you what your biases are. You might get them all wrong.

        • J4Zonian Says:

          Courageous and determined examination not just of cognitive biases but of deeper motivations is what works. Help is crucial at first, but once the methods are learned and the biggest blocks to acceptance of reality are removed, mature people can mostly do it on their own, although a group or occasional check-ins help.

  4. Not-in-my-name Says:

    Do we listen to the genuine scientists like Peter Ridd, an expert on the barrier reef, who is telling us the truth, or do we listen to the view of the Australian judges who say that he is wrong?

  5. Jeffrey Cowdrey Says:

    Peter Ridd is not an expert on the barrier reef.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      How do know that ? Just guessing ? Or have you been doing your own research ? If so, stop that at once.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        you you you you you

        Thought you might want to borrow a few yous. You seem to be short of them or something.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        One sure sign of an anti-science climate denier: working for or being funded by one of the many right wing economic PR firms masquerading as science-oriented think tanks.
        “Ridd was a signatory to a full-page ad funded by the Cato Institute that argued “the case for alarm regarding climate change is grossly overstated””

        Second sure sign: denying against all evidence that warming isn’t happening.
        Third sign: believing, again against all evidence, in the faux pause
        “Surface temperature changes over the past century have been episodic and modest and there has been no net global warming for over a decade now.”

        Fourth Sign: Proudly associating with notorious climate denying delayalists
        Ridd: “Thanks to lots of people including Anthony Watts, Jennifer Marohasy, Jo Nova, Benny Peiser (GWPF), Willie Soon ”

  6. Robert Nagle Says:

    Interpretation of statistics can be one gotcha. Even reasonably intelligent laypeople can miss out on the subtleties of results and sample size, etc.

    Medical information is somewhat easier to assess because one news source can have more credibility than another.

    With regard to climate change like IPCC, the policymakers’ document can be easier to interpret than the specifically scientific chapters. A lot of the controversies lie in modeling past and future (and the assumptions). But the policy docs were written in ways that summarize what is controversial and what is not and what are the impacts of certain actions.

    I think people are leery about paying extra to receive information from experts. Can’t you just google it? Part of it is just recognizing your own limits. With the law for example, I can read legal opinions and look up procedures. Maybe Internet research is good enough. But I recently hired a lawyer for a matter after realizing that what I had learned about a legal subject by reading was simply insufficient. On the other hand, it helps to ask more intelligent questions of experts.

    I don’t think an academic position necessarily makes you the best expert on the subject; many people learn a subject more deeply without achieving an academic laurel. For science though, you depend on equipment, facilities, grants and a group of like-minded people to check your assessments. In that way, it can be a good proxy measure of quality.

    The policymaker hat is often more important to have than the scientific hat. It may still be a debatable point whether more guns increase deaths, but the real question is whether I am safer owning a gun — or whether it increases my risk overall.

    Part of the problem is knowing how much importance to give to certain pieces of evidence — given uncertainty, error bars and disputes about method.

    That said, it’s helpful for laypeople to go outside their comfort zone and read about things beyond their current understanding.

  7. Robert Nagle Says:

    It is challenging for politicians to absorb information and research at a nonexpert level and then to defend this position publicly. For climate change, I’ve been shocked at the skimpy mastery of what I consider to be important things in the field (i.e., climate sensitivity, tipping points, understanding how the past informs the present). I guess a well staffed congressional or senate office might offset that somewhat. In particular I am appalled at how uncritical politicians seem to be about the natural gas industry and about the payoffs of improving our energy infrastructure. And I am a layman.

    Maybe Donald Trump is a perfect example of how easily it is to be swayed by random evidence and epistemic closure. I often wonder — where does he hear all that terrible information?

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Over and over and over we’ve found that Trump gets most of his information from Fox channel, especially the show Fox and Friends. He also surrounds himself wiith hordes of extreme right wing sycophants

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