How to research research [pt1 – intro]

Scientific issues are playing an ever greater role in our society: from the innovations that generate so much of our wealth to the very preservation of human life. Technological innovations produced by science have a huge impact on our lives: sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

People are right to be skeptical of of new scientific findings. People are right not to take scientific posturing on authority alone. People are especially right to ask questions. I think that most scientists love nothing more than tough questions asked out of genuine curiosity and concern.

Unfortunately, true skepticism is very difficult to separate from it’s lesser (and more irrational) cousin: doubt. When I encounter websites or media sources that present phony skepticism or when I see misguided skepticism from opinionated non-scientists it makes me sad: both because it muddies the topic in question and because it confuses people about how the scientific process works. I find it disheartening to see so much bad information and -in some cases- disinformation is out there. Scientific issues are complex. Scientific language is couched in an open and careful admission of uncertainties. Both of these things make it incredibly easy for partisans to spin and distort our work. An informed scientific reader should always be aware of this.

Skepticism is an essential part of the scientific enterprise. But, many people seem to think that skepticism means being skeptical of others. One of the most important points in the scientific method is self-skepticism. Being hyper aware of our own biases and predispositions is the first step in overcoming them. The purpose of all of the controls in the scientific method isn’t to guard against the biases of others. Researchers put these controls in place to protect ourselves against our own bias. I truly believe that if more people operated with self-skepticism, we as a society would be better able to handle the complex problems that increasingly loom over our society.

The skeptical approaches of the scientific method do not have to apply only to scientists who are doing original research. A non-scientist, trying to understand a scientific issue can use these methods to keep his inquiry as objective and open-minded as possible. In a past article I gave an outline for how to fact-check web rumors. In the next series of posts, I would like to provide some thoughts for how to dig for the science buried the clutter of these rumors. My goal is to provide instruction on how to research research.

At the end of the day, the important question is not about how much research you did, but how you did your research. What is your research process? Do you have one? Ideologues typically research like lawyers: actively seeking out the facts that support their position, and disregarding or minimizing the facts that weaken their cases. Given the complexity and breadth of scientific issues, it is always possible to find experts and data to support any proposition. A person is capable of convincing themselves of just about anything. And, for anything they hear, they can probably find a rebuttal. But, is that data and are those experts representative of the whole of the knowledge on a subject?  To properly get the pulse of a field, you need to think less like a lawyer and more like a scientist: you need to prefer seeing a thing for how it is, and not how you want it to be. This is the essence of what we will hash out in the following articles.

This post is just an introduction to what will hopefully be a series. The second two posts are more-or-less finished. So I’m going to try to post at least one a week, with the first follow-up coming on Monday. Also, I’ve been experimenting with sound and video, so who knows what crazy things I may try.


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