II’m terrible at most sports – like, really terribly terrible. My hand-eye coordination is practically non-existent. I also have this fear of flying objects hitting me in the face. I’m much more likely to duck, close my eyes and try unsuccessfully to fend something off than catch any type of ball. I have nothing but admiration for these people who are blessed with athletic talent, especially since I recognize the number of hours of hard work, practice and study it takes to develop this level of expertise.
I don’t know how to play any musical instrument. I played saxophone in a jazz band during my years at Davis Middle School, but that was a long time ago. Since then, I have completely forgotten how to read music and, although I often think that one day I will have time to sit down and pick up an instrument, there is not much I can do on the piano except play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I love to sing and I believe music is one of those things that brings people such happiness that it doesn’t necessarily matter if a person is “good” at it, it should just be done for pleasure. However, I also doubt that my singing will bring others any joy. Again, I have nothing but admiration for those who have put in countless hours of practice and study to perfect their craft.
Likewise, I can’t fix cars, fix my refrigerator, drive a bulldozer, develop computer software, paint or sculpt, perform brain surgery, or a number of other things. I am grateful that there are others who have dedicated their time and energy to developing expertise in these areas so that I don’t have to. What a blessing it is.
I am currently enrolled in a descriptive research course in my PhD program, one of many empirical research and analysis courses I have taken throughout my academic career. Let’s be clear: this is a doctoral program in educational administration, not medicine. I am not now, nor will I ever be, any kind of doctor, medical researcher, infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist, etc. Again, I am more than grateful that there are others who have dedicated years, if not decades, of their lives to becoming experts in these fields.
However, I know a little about conducting research. I understand the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. I know how to find peer-reviewed scholarly articles and read the abstract, abstract, methods used, limitations, and conclusions. I understand the difference between independent and dependent variables, the meaning and importance of a control group and randomization, and the difference between experimental and correlational research.
I understand that there is a difference between a hypothesis, a prediction and a theory. I understand what it means for a theory to be widely accepted in a scientific field based on not one or two but thousands of experiments and studies reaching the same conclusion. Measurement levels, measurement error, confounding variables, sum of squares, variance, standard deviation, linear regression, ANOVA, significance, Z-scores and the list goes on – these are all terms and concepts based on research and statistics that I have at least a basic understanding of (some much, much more than others).
I’m also very grateful that I don’t have to deeply understand a lot of it. I know from my own courses and my preparation for conducting research to eventually write a thesis that this stuff is difficult. It’s not about watching a five-minute YouTube video and voila, you’re a researcher! I’ve been pushed over the edge more than once trying to figure out difficult concepts that involve a lot of math – and I’m pretty good at math.
Of course, there is also the not insignificant issue of looking for biases and logical errors. Is there enough evidence to support the conclusions? Is it reproducible? Is correlation confused with causation? Is a concept or study being applied to an entirely different set of circumstances? Do cognitive biases lead to distorted conclusions?
My point is this: expertise in scientific research is, like any other skill, something that takes years of dedication and study.
It has become common for some people to tell others, “Do your own research.” What they really mean, of course, is to do some kind of secondary or tertiary research – to research other people’s research since the vast majority of us don’t have the skills or resources to conduct original research. Without a basic understanding of the concepts listed above, and many more, many of us also lack the ability to “do our own research” objectively, but somehow , many of us seem to think we can do it.
I have to say this is one of the most insulting things I have ever heard. That’s like saying, “Watch this 10-minute YouTube video and you too can play basketball like Donovan Mitchell!” “Flip through this article a guy wrote about how to sing and you’ll be singing like Lady Gaga before you know it!” “Look at this meme and you too can perform a liver transplant!”
This is completely and utterly ridiculous.
People “doing their own research” during a pandemic – thinking they somehow know better than scientists who have dedicated their lives to finding ways to improve ours – is insane and is at least partly responsible for the staggering number of deaths we have seen as the pandemic enters its third year.
People perusing the abstract of one or two studies so that they can confidently state that healthcare professionals – in every city, county and state in the country and in every nation of the world, I might add – are involved in a vast conspiracy is not, in fact, “research”.
I recently had a falling out with a person who will remain anonymous after that person urged me to read one of these “studies”. I read it and caught an error in some calculations, which I pointed out while explaining that a mathematical error so basic that even I, with my limited abilities, caught it did not bother me given a lot of confidence in the results.
I tried, for the umpteenth time, to explain that I place much more trust in researchers and scientists with much more knowledge and skills in the field of infectious diseases than I ever have, or n ‘ll ever own one, than I do in a study supposedly touted by an internet celebrity trying to sell me something – even if that “something” is just a nonsensical conspiracy theory.
Another thing we hear a lot these days is that we need to respect each other’s opinions. I agree – we should. However, we’re not talking about whether pepperoni pizza is better than regular cheese pizza or our favorite song. We’re talking about situations in which a layman’s opinion on vaccine effectiveness and the most significant public health emergency of the last century isn’t as valid as hundreds of thousands of assessments and recommendations. medical experts – that’s just not the case.
We all have our areas of expertise and that’s a good thing. I can’t imagine what the world would be like if we all had to deal with every little thing that came along – human beings just aren’t capable of being experts, or even competent, at everything. It’s certainly not a bad thing to admit that there are areas where other people have a lot more skills and knowledge, and it’s certainly not a bad thing to trust those people, especially when thousands, if not millions, of them agree.
And it’s certainly not a bad thing, in these situations, not to “do your own research”.