Do Your Own Research

Ethan Siegel writes for the mostly terrible Forbes contributor network that You Must Not Do Your Own Research When It Comes To Science. Ethan is a Ph.D. astrophysicist, author, and science communicator, whatever that is.

His core thesis is that all scientific matters are so specialized and complex that it’s impossible for a layperson to have an informed opinion on any topic, therefore we should trust credentialed expert opinion on everything:

Unless we start valuing the actual expertise that legitimate experts have spent lifetimes developing, “doing our own research” could lead to immeasurable, unnecessary suffering.

In other words, trust the experts like me or humanity is doomed.

There was a time, we called it the Dark Ages for a reason, when people didn’t have access to information in order to form their own opinions. Knowledge, land, and wealth were concentrated in a small number of people. Kings and religious leaders were the experts, and they told everyone what to think. Advances in technology from the printing press to the internet make vast troves of information available to the majority of people on the planet. I see no viable path from where we are today back to an expert mediated and controlled information sharing environment. We would have to prohibit, destroy, or censor books, magazines, newspapers, phones, radios, computers, blogs, social media, satellites, and TV. Since it’s not possible to revert 600 years of scientific progress, Ethan asks us to ignore it and go back to trusting the experts.

His request demonstrates a lack of understanding of two key human emotions; the desire for control and trust.

He cites fluoridated drinking water as a trivial example. Despite near unanimous agreement from the scientific and dental communities that fluoridation is safe and reduces dental caries in children, there are many communities that have chosen not to add fluoride to their public water systems.

The idea that “our water is natural” and “adding fluoride isn’t” has proven more powerful in swaying public opinion in these locations than the science supporting fluoride’s safety and effectiveness. To the voting public, a fear of chemicals and an affinity for what feels natural was more compelling than the dental health of poor children, despite near-universal support from dental health professionals.

Despite no controversy on the science, the best science communicators have failed to convince the public. The reluctance to adopt fluoridated water in Portland, OR has nothing to do with the science, which is compelling, or the experts, which are in agreement, or Portland, which is lovely if you ignore the riots. Mr. Siegel overlooks the reality that people want to have control of their own lives and communities. They don’t want to be told what to do.

Ethan pleads with us to listen to the consensus of the scientific community and wear masks, instead of each person trying to do their own research about whether masks are effective. His point that most humans look for evidence to support their preconceived notions is unquestionably correct. His motives are pure.

Scientific methods and mental elasticity enable scientists to form their opinion based on the data, and change their opinion to in response to new or updated data. Asking people not to do their own research replaces this rational, logical, and data driven approach with an emotional decision to trust.

When asked to trust an expert, people expect the experts to get it right. When the experts change their recommendations, our trust in them decreases. Skepticism rises with the rate of change in the evidence. Skepticism in the face of changing data is not a flaw, but a biological feature of humankind, honed by generations of experience.

A mere 6 months ago the Surgeon General of the United States tweeted that we should stop buying masks because “they are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching Coronavirus”. This was a “science communication” from a credentialed and noted expert. Now we all should buy and wear masks. Because the experts were wrong then and right now. That requires a lot of trust from someone who shouldn’t do their own research.

The most valuable skill in the Information Age is the ability to evaluate and analyze sources and the information they produce. It as important today as knowing how to plant and harvest was 200 years ago. Mr. Seigel’s assertion may be true:

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.

However, common folk aren’t alone in their demonstration of spectacular failure in scientific matter. In 1998 The Lancet, one of the premier peer-reviewed medical journals in the world, published a paper by Dr. Andrew Wakefield asserting that MMR vaccines caused autism. A peer-reviewed journal like The Lancet requires scientific peers of the author to review the findings to ensure the science is sound before publication. News outlets publicized and quoted the assertions of the scientific experts.

It took The Lancet 6 years to investigate the paper, and another 6 years to retract it. We now know that:

…the children that Wakefield studied were carefully selected and some of Wakefield’s research was funded by lawyers acting for parents who were involved in lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. The council found Wake-field had acted unethically and had shown “callous disregard” for the children in his study, upon whom invasive tests were performed.

Many physicians directly attribute measles outbreaks in the UK, Canada, and the United States to the publication of this erroneous paper. Anti-vaxxers have been around as long as vaccines, but every anti-vaxxer I know says something about autism in the first 3 sentences of every new conversation. I could make a compelling argument that this erroneous paper is the cause of the modern anti-vax movement.

Replacing our own curiosity with trust in the experts is not the answer. We must enhance our ability to analyze and evaluate information and sources, and strive to update our often outdated notions of how that world works. If you need a suggestion of where to start, try Hans Rosling’s excellent Factfulness.