“Do Your Research”
“Do Your Research”
Is it my imagination, or do vax- and mask-hesitant people, reported in news stories about the Covid Divide, almost always say they “have done their research” or something like that? The medical people and public health advocates that get interviewed rarely seem to use this phrase, at least not in the first person. More research, more unhinged beliefs—how does that happen?
There are many parts to this story, but one is summed up in the word “research” itself. In high school, students are taught to use the internet or general bibliographic indexes to find articles about their topic, take notes, and use them to “support” their thesis by showing that there are others, prominent enough to get published, who agree with them. If they’re lucky, these students will go on to college and come into contact with teachers who de-educate them in this charade of scholarship and instead show how to do the real thing. But between those who don’t go to college and those who do but don’t find that kind of teacher, most people never graduate from the high school approach. They think going online and finding a few articles about the government coverup of vaccine deaths or the uselessness of masks means that they have done due diligence, thinking for themselves instead of robotically following public health mandates.
Practically speaking, how can we translate a deeper understanding of “research” into habits that everyone can make sense of and follow?
It’s just one way, but here’s how I taught it in the classroom. I would say there are really two kinds of research, passive and active.* Passive research is what you’re taught to do in high school. You more or less randomly find some articles about the topic you’re interested in, jot down notes, and take stock of what you’ve learned up to that point. If you are coming at a subject without any prior background, it’s the only way to begin.
But that’s just the first step. Next, look at your notes and analyze what they say and what’s missing. If someone says A causes B, do you have a full understanding of how that’s supposed to work—what actual process does it and why other factors don’t prevent it? Look into the sources you’ve read: do they or the organizations they work for have an interest in the argument they’re making? If a source offers what seems to be a fringe position, can you explain why it’s fringy—why they haven’t persuaded a bigger chunk of the mainstream of their field to join their side? For every argument, what are the main counterarguments? For empirical evidence, what are the uncertainties: the measurement issues, statistical questions, or possible inconsistency with other findings?
There’s no getting around the challenge of this second step. It requires systematically thinking through the first-round information, locating gaps and squishy parts. There’s a limit to how thorough you can be, especially if you don’t have much expertise to draw on, but it’s the only antidote to the “little-knowledge-is-a-dangerous-thing” syndrome.
The final step is to move to active research. Instead of simply reading whatever comes your way on the basis of a very general search, you are actively seeking answers to the specific questions arising from your analysis. This can mean locating rebuttals to specific authors or arguments, detailed bits of information needed to evaluate empirical claims, or the missing pieces that the initial round of reading didn’t turn up. This requires more advanced search skills, which a knowledgeable teacher can help with.
The “research” that gathers up a clutch of anti-vax or other fringe Covid-related material is at best just the passive, stage one sort. Unless you move on from there you may end up less informed, or more misinformed, than you were before you started.
*Actually, the research methods discussed in this post are what practitioners call desk research or literature reviews. At the base of the food chain are the labors of researchers who themselves gather data, perform analyses or construct models to create new knowledge.
Excellent post with an important message.
The “research” valorized by the anti-science (anti-vax, creationist, climate change denialist, etc) crowd is just another form of argument from authority, the sort of “research” the religions do. While authoritative voices in science and medicine are valuable, quoting authority isn’t research, and it lends itself too much to confirmation bias.
In this sense, Ronald Reagan had it right–trust, but verify. If you’re not actually doing the research at the bench or bedside yourself, your research must involve reading and critically appraising the primary literature. Tedious details like study design, controls, sample sizes, are all part of researching the literature. Simply parroting the headlines and abstracts isn’t research.
And one final thought: critical thinking isn’t the same as criticizing, and ad hominem attacks are the refuge of scoundrels.
I over read before I go to print. Some have asked me to write and expect something in a day. It does not happen that way. I read more than they give and dig deeper. A month or so later, it is ready.
Yes, quality, not quantity.
It’s a Q dogwhistle. I’ve heard it from those who should know better.
(yeah yeah, long-time lurker, rare commenter)
I recognize you.
My experience is that only a very small number of people claim researching much of anything. I know many who have not taken any of the vaccines and nearly all do not wear masks either. And most simply say they have no plans to. But I can imagine that the small sample that get approached for news stories might be out of the ordinary, or want to appear to be.
your advice sounds like what i might have said myself, but…
most people(99%) are not capable of doing that kind of thinking. they are capable of thinking they are doing that kind of thinking.. that is looking at more articles, or looking at “scientific” articles (that is, articles that claim to be scientific and are written in what sounds like scientific language).
most people (99% maybe of even scientific people) cannot overcome the bias they have from previous “knowledge,” perhaps especially “emotional knowledge” of the kind they don’t even know they have.
[third) “do your research” is part of the general insane Right tactic of “sounding like” their enemies..that is, sounding rational. it helps their followers feel good but the only research they mean is “read our in-depth propaganda.” it’s like “the Bible says..” but the very sad fact is that even people on our side say “science says…” in exactly the same way that “religious people” say “the Bible says.”
there really are limits to human intelligence and time. my guess is that only people who spend years studying a fairly narrow subject even come close to actually understanding it, and not all of them.
in the present case we have people who may actually know something about “the science” but utterly fail to understand that “the science” has really nothing to do with the policy proposals they come up with and defend by calling those who don’t agree with them “stupid” and being willing to do to them what they would never think of doing to a friend… or even to an enemy who had the power to resist or retaliate.
when you have studied people as much as I like to think I have, you may begin to suspect, as I have, that those “ad hominems” you hear coming at you are likely to be the words you hear in your own mind as you prepare to answer them .
when i was in high school–before the internet–anyone who copied the encyclopedia for a “research” report would have been told to try again. on the other hand, even when i was a freshman in college i did not have the mental stamina…or time, or even a clue… to cross examine the few sources i found in the library.
that appears to come with something they called in another context: “mathematical maturity,” in other words, lots of experience working with teachers who demanded cross examination, even of one’s own true beliefs. not quite the same as “arguing both sides” as in law school, or dismissing “religious” ideas out of hand as mindless superstition.
when i was in grade school they said “learning algebra teaches you to think.” i thought that was nonsense: learning algebra teaches you to do algebra. now i am not so sure. when i taught math in college i was dismayed that i could not teach my students to think. i had the (wrong) idea that if i just gave them better and better explanations of the math they would learn it. what i realized later was that a good teacher does not explain, he inspires. i’m not so good at that. there is something magic about “learning to think.” i really don’t know how that happens. but it makes me think of “faith means taking the first step toward where you want to go.” and of course, the next. most people don’t get very far because they don’t know where they really want to go.
The other aspect of the “I’ve done my research crowd” that I’ve noticed is an arrogant assumption that anyone who accepts the prevailing scientific consensus is a mindless sheep who simply swallows what they are told without question. It never occurs to them that people who disagree with their nonsense also did their research and concluded that the scientists and trained experts who devoted their lives to a discipline know what they’re talking about.
quite possibly true, but some people fail to realize when they have stopped trusting “the science” and started trusting people who tell them what “science says” and mostly don’t even realize they have stopped talking about science altogether and entered the arena of politics and morality…which are inextricably interlinked, with politics being about when we can safely impose our morality on other people…they will fight back, or we will create a morality for ourselves that destroys us without need for an “other” enemy.
i like to think there is a difference between “won’t wear mask in crowded theater with covid” and “won’t let you stick a needle in his arm.” the first is not a serious infringement on a person’s “liberty.” the last is at least a serious threat to a persons legitimate freedom from bodily assault by the government, but still open to negotiation and persuasion. which of course we never do when we are scared or angry. or, apparently, seriously worried about being inconvenienced or having to pay an extra dollar in taxes.