You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research’ When It Comes To Science

I don’t have scientific expertise. I work with people who do. I trust their informed opinions on scientific matters far more than I trust my own ability to “do the research” in areas where they have far more expertise than I do.

I would not expect a metallurgist to be able to fix my rusty car, and I would not expect my local mechanic to invent an anti-rust alloy. The skill sets are both important, but they aren’t interchangeable. Expertise matters.

“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.


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. —Forbes

3 thoughts on “You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research’ When It Comes To Science

  1. Sooo ….. don’t question anything you’re told by “experts” or the government because you can’t possibly comprehend the clear and undebatable factual evidence that definitely proves what you’re being told about very important subjects? Right we might need to upend much of society and destroy everything you have spent you’re life working for. It may require complete devastation or elimination of large swaths of American industry putting millions of people out of work and making them completely dependent on the government. But certainly don’t try to understand the reasonings behind it all. Just trust us! As a wise man once said, “We’re the government and we’re here to help…..” (Don’t bother looking that up, it’s probably right.)

    • “Anonymous” begins with hyperbole that exaggerates and misrepresents the opposing view; throws in some slogans; and ends in an all-caps name-calling climax. These are all strategies that rally people who already agree with you, but none of these strategies has anything to do with how science goes about hypothesizing, testing, creating, and redefining knowledge in line with the experts’ best understanding of the available evidence.

      See “Argument in Academic Writing: How to Disagree”

  2. I’ll add that even undergrad science majors at first tend to think of “research” as finding and memorizing the correct answers. When they present their research topic and a thesis about a current debate, they ask me, “Is this correct?”, I can flag a thesis that’s overgeneralizing or begging the question or framing the opposition as a straw dog, but there isn’t a correct answer in the back of my book that tells me whether your thesis is “correct.” That can alarm the science students, who are used to taking computer-graded multiple-choice quizzes that instantly reward them for memorizing the “correct answer.”

    It takes a while even for the science majors to grasp that experts researching the unknown don’t get a grade from an authority who can validate them for memorizing and spitting back the correct answers.

    If it’s challenging for them, it’s much harder for members of the general public to follow science when it’s happening in real time, such as when the WHO, the CDC, or Dr. Fauci change their recommendations as circumstances change.

    If you’re used to living your life by universal truths that don’t change over time or circumstances, and if you expect science in the real world to be as cut-and-dried as the science you remember from high school (where all the correct answers were in the back of the teacher’s book), then seeing top-level scientists retract a study, or change their recommendations or admit their ignorance can be unsettling.

    In 2016 only about 27% of Americans 65 and older had a college degree, but for Americans 25-44, that number was about 36%. So we’re gong to have a much more educated elder population in the coming decades.

    As Trump once put it, “We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.”

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