On Doing Your Own Research

It seems these days more and more people are encouraging each other to “do the research” so they can be properly informed about a subject and make their own decisions. As an academic librarian, you would think I would be thrilled with this newfound desire to delve into research. Instead, I’m left scratching my head.

The problem is that what I mean by “research” seems to be quite different than what many other people think it means. Perhaps a lot of this stems from the fact that I believe different levels of research are appropriate for different projects.

For example, if you’re interested in finding out where you recognize that guy in that movie from, then doing a quick search on Wikipedia or IMDB makes perfect sense. It’s a simple question with a simple answer. The stakes are relatively low. What’s the worst thing that happens if you turn out to be wrong? You look foolish at a party? I think we can all live with that. Likewise, if you’re interested in different Big Foot sightings, you can no doubt find no end of web pages that will regale you with any number of them. Again: very low risk if those sites end up being wrong. Worst case, I suppose you head out to where some of the sites swear Big Foot visits all the time, and you waste a weekend searching for him in vain. (Hmm. Or would the worst case be that you actually find him and are torn limb from limb? Maybe this was a bad example . . .)

When the stakes get raised, the importance of the quality of the research goes up dramatically. Say you’re writing a paper for your college biology class. In this case, citing Wikipedia as your main research source isn’t nearly as appropriate. You’d want to be using academic, peer-reviewed journals to persuade your professor that you really have “done your research.”

(A quick aside, as I recognize not everyone knows what a peer-reviewed journal means. In essence, it means that for an article to be published in that journal, a scholar in that field does extensive research, writes it up, and submits it. The editor of the journal then sends that article on to other scholars in the field (anonymously, so they have no idea who wrote it). Those scholars then evaluate the research and its findings, ultimately recommending that the article be published, be rejected, or be revised. No article makes it to print without being verified by other experts in that field. Thus, this research is far more reliable than anything else you’re going to find online.)

If, when people said “do your research,” they meant, “go scour through peer-reviewed journals for a while and come back when you’re better informed,” I might feel a bit more comfortable with the suggestion. But that’s not what they mean. The research people typically end up doing consists of reading articles by reporters, watching YouTube videos, reading websites around an issue, and asking their friends. Worse yet, they’re typically doing this in an effort to prove that what they want to believe is actually the truth. (Pro tip: never start your research with your mind already made up. These days, you will almost always be able to find someone who says you’re right, and it will be that much easier for you to mentally dismiss anyone who disagrees with you.)

What’s particularly alarming in these instances is the ultimate worst case scenarios if the “research” people have done turns out to be wrong. With pandemics and climate change, that can result in millions dead and entire areas ruined for decades to come.

Let’s say for a moment that I decided to do some real research into vaccinations. As a trained reference librarian, I know how to sift through sources to find and evaluate the best research. Let’s say I spend 100 hours combing through the various studies before I come up with an opinion. Even after all of that, that “opinion” isn’t nearly worth as much as an actual expert in the field. Why? Because while I’ve spent 100 hours of my life doing this, that person has spent decades of their life becoming familiar with the field and its nuances. Knowing how to effectively discern between a good study and a bad one. I realize there is no way I can compete with that sort of background.

Ultimately, when it comes to issues like “is the vaccine safe?”, no amount of research I’m going to do is going to be able to reliably contradict the general consensus of experts in the field. And that’s if I’ve done everything right. Science is self-correcting. Researchers do studies. Those studies are evaluated and replicated. They learn from their past mistakes and findings. Through that process, better and better information rises to the surface.

The science on climate change or COVID or the vaccines might have been up for debate decades ago (in climate change’s case) or a year ago (for the others), but the more you see those expert opinions aligning, the more solid that science becomes. Yes, you still might find some studies that contradict the consensus. But those studies will in turn be evaluated. If they prove correct, then the consensus will change. If they don’t, then they’ll be dismissed. In issues like these, the currency of the study is vital to knowing how much credence to give it.

If I come down with a series of symptoms that seem alarming, I will undoubtedly do some “research” to find out just how alarmed I should be. I just can’t help myself. But I know better than to assume three hours of WebMD scanning is going to help me in any meaningful way. To do that, I need to go to an actual expert. A doctor. And even then, I might get a second opinion.

So for issues like the safety of the COVID vaccine, I wish the general public would realize that “doing the research” isn’t really going to help them at all. Or rather, it won’t help them nearly as much as simply listening to the experts in the first place. Right now, Florida is averaging 19,000 cases each day. Their earlier peak was just under 18,000. They have 13,000 people hospitalized with COVID. (Their earlier peak in the first wave was 12,000.) And still they have a governor who’s insisting masks are an option, not a necessity. People who believe the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease. 617,000 Americans have died of this so far. (The worst recent yearly flu death total for the US is around 61,000.) The global death total is coming up in 4.25 million. It’s almost certainly much higher than that.

Not all research has the same weight. Please get vaccinated now.

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