Should you do your own research?

Conspiracy theorists and the scientific community both agree on one thing: you should do your own research

When two fundamentally opposed groups of people agree on something, it is usually because of a misinterpretation of the idea by one or both of them. You might think the statement “Do your own research” is something scientists would say. After all science is based on peer review: multiple people coming together to independently form a consensus ensures the preservation of objectivity. And if anyone would want their methods questioned and understood rather than accepted at face value, it would be scientists. So go on, do your own research.

Except the phrase originated from one of the most famous conspiracy theorists of all time, the American radio broadcaster Milton William Cooper who, among other things, claimed to have worked in the US Navy, the US Airforce and the US Naval Intelligence before colluding with the son of Learjet’s co-founder on UFO sightings. He would go on to discuss HIV/AIDS, the Kennedy assassination, the Illuminati and the idea that Bill Clinton was out to get him. On his radio show, his oft-shouted tagline was “Do your own research”.

This goes to highlight an important aspect of how misinformation spreads: not a lack of research but improper research.

A paper from Nature published earlier this month shows that people wading through articles online in the hope to ‘research’ falsehoods they read are more likely to come away having strengthened their belief in these falsehoods. In other words, research without objectivity—read, improper research—can quickly turn into an exercise in merely confirming existing biases.

A second form of improper research, also highlighted in this paper, was the blind use of keywords enforced or even concocted by fake news articles. The paper uses as example the meaningless term “engineered famine” used to describe a made-up lack of food and other such resources in the US brought about intentionally using covid-19 lockdowns and forcing vaccines upon people.

When people come across such terms that sound more scientific than they are, they simply look them up on Google in the name of research and are shown at least 63% of other misinformation articles confirming this weird idea. To the person asking Google their duty is done: they have done their own research. Except is it really research? Or is it a naïve search engine look-up whose results are simply consumed at face value?

This brings us to the next big idea: perhaps it is not social media alone that is ruining the spread of factually accurate information. Search engines that simply offer you more misinformation when you seek to “research” some misinformation are as much to blame. And of course beneath all this is the most dangerous element of all: the uncritical reader.

So what we really need is not a clarion call to “do your own research”, rather large-scale training to think critically so that when we do do our own research we may come away with reliable information instead of things that make us feel great by agreeing with us.

Perhaps 2024 could be the year of critical thinking. It could even go so far as to become the panacea for all wars.

You just read issue #17 of Confluence. If you liked it, there is more. New issues are sent out roughly every fortnight. Please consider subscribing to this newsletter.