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Why We Shouldn't Mock People For "Doing Their Research"

The drive to do your own research is a healthy one.

Seven Shooter/Unsplash
Source: Seven Shooter/Unsplash

When the COVID vaccines first arrived, people were encouraged to do their research. It was assumed people would go to trusted, scientific sources and their fears would be soothed.

Now, some people are being mocked for "doing their research," but not doing it in the ways others perhaps expected. What happened?

  • Fear-mongering was amplified.
  • People sought information from people they identified with.
  • People sought dissenting opinions (sort of).

Let's break all this down and understand it better.

Fear-mongering was amplified.

In an evolutionary sense, it makes sense to pay extra attention to signals of potential danger versus signals of safety. We're wired this way because we don't have nine lives. We pay extra attention to signals of danger. This is how fear-mongering is amplified. We're wired to share information about dangers with our tribe. This is a generally helpful quality of humans, that in modern times sometimes goes awry.

People sought information from people they identified with.

Again, let's think about evolution. Humans are tribal. We're very sensitive to in-groups and out-groups—that is, people who are like us versus people we perceive as not like us. We're wired to trust information from our in-groups, the people we see as being like us.

The people who find it easy to trust Dr. Fauci or the CDC director may be those who perceive those people as "like me" or at least "somewhat like me." On a lot of levels, it doesn't make sense to trust anyone you don't feel included by.

People sought dissenting opinions (sort of).

In general, humans struggle a lot with confirmation bias or "myside" bias, that is, paying the most attention to information that supports the views we already hold. We have different standards for evidence that supports our views vs. that which contradicts them.

Whenever we get beyond this and make the effort to seek out dissenting information, this is generally a very good thing. This includes going outside of traditionally respected sources of information. For example, people who are outsiders sometimes find answers and solutions that insiders and experts miss. And crowdsourced information from patients can be very useful to open-minded doctors.

As a scientist, I can say that media sources aren't always reliable fountains of scientific information. It's possible to find a single study or two to show almost anything. Therefore, when magazines or online outlets cherry-pick a study to show a particular finding, it's not ideal. It's almost possible to say "research shows..." or "studies show..." and then say almost anything you like.

In media, there is pressure to break news. This means that studies that say something new and interesting, even when it's one random study, will sometimes get a lot of pickup in the media.

In science, there is reasonably widespread agreement on what types of evidence are the strongest. For example, meta-analyses are often considered strong evidence. Meta-analyses are studies that combine the results of many other studies on a topic. Large, very rigorously conducted trials, ideally with long-term follow-up, are also considered pretty strong evidence.

However, these aren't the be-all and end-all. We still need scientists who are testing ideas that differ from prevailing wisdom. When people first propose novel ideas, by definition, they won't already have meta-analyses and other large studies supporting them.

Traditional study designs often tell us a lot about what works for most people, but not how to help people for whom that doesn't work. Personally, when it comes to health care, I try the most evidence-based option first, but I'm also willing to try options with shakier research if that doesn't work as well as I would have liked.

When it comes to health behaviors, the human body is an incredibly complex system. Therefore, there will be lots of cases when health behaviors (e.g., related to diet, exercise, or taking supplements or medications) have some positive consequences but also some negative consequences. Science and medicine are actually not clear-cut.

My point here is that seeking information and ideas from non-traditional sources, alongside more traditional ones, isn't a bad idea. But, there can be problems when:

  • people don't have enough basic science education to know how reliable evidence is determined, and
  • when problems like myside bias and confirmation bias distort people's interpretations.

Doing your own research is a good thing—if you're interested in learning how to do it well.

  • To do your own research, learn something about how good studies are conducted. For example, in the case of the COVID vaccine studies, these were blinded and placebo-controlled. Some study participants received a placebo and some received the active vaccines. But the participants didn't know which they got until the studies were finished. They were good studies. Everything I know about good research design has led me to trust the results and get vaccinated.
  • Understand why humans have biases like confirmation bias and how to overcome them.
  • Do seek out non-traditional sources and opinions, including from people who you don't perceive to be part of your in-group or like you. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Interesting ideas can come from sources that aren't reliable on everything.
  • Do be aware of how money influences what research is done. For example, in lots of areas of medicine, doctors find that inexpensive treatments for one condition actually help another. However, it can be hard to get research funding to systematically look at that since drug companies don't stand to gain huge profits from it. Likewise, it's often easier to study people with more severe versions of problems who reach services than people with milder versions who have less contact with health care. Yet, there is still value in knowing what helps those people.
  • Let's acknowledge that doing your own research is hard. For example, I started taking a supplement (not related to COVID) on a doctor's recommendation. Last night, I spent several hours of my Sunday evening looking closely at the studies on it myself. And I'm still confused and need to do more!

The drive for people to do their own research is healthy and adaptive. People will do it better when they have more science education and when reliable sources do better at helping people feel included and accepted. It's not desirable to tell people they should only listen to a very restricted range of sources as good ideas can come from many sources, including those that aren't reliable about everything.