Is it my imagination, or do vax- and mask-hesitant people, reported in news stories about the Covid Divide, almost always say they “have done their research” or something like that? The medical people and public health advocates that get interviewed rarely seem to use this phrase, at least not in the first person. More research, more unhinged beliefs—how does that happen?
There are many parts to this story, but one is summed up in the word “research” itself. In high school, students are taught to use the internet or general bibliographic indexes to find articles about their topic, take notes, and use them to “support” their thesis by showing that there are others, prominent enough to get published, who agree with them. If they’re lucky, these students will go on to college and come into contact with teachers who de-educate them in this charade of scholarship and instead show how to do the real thing. But between those who don’t go to college and those who do but don’t find that kind of teacher, most people never graduate from the high school approach. They think going online and finding a few articles about the government coverup of vaccine deaths or the uselessness of masks means that they have done due diligence, thinking for themselves instead of robotically following public health mandates.
Practically speaking, how can we translate a deeper understanding of “research” into habits that everyone can make sense of and follow?
It’s just one way, but here’s how I taught it in the classroom. I would say there are really two kinds of research, passive and active.* Passive research is what you’re taught to do in high school. You more or less randomly find some articles about the topic you’re interested in, jot down notes, and take stock of what you’ve learned up to that point. If you are coming at a subject without any prior background, it’s the only way to begin.
But that’s just the first step. Next, look at your notes and analyze what they say and what’s missing. If someone says A causes B, do you have a full understanding of how that’s supposed to work—what actual process does it and why other factors don’t prevent it? Look into the sources you’ve read: do they or the organizations they work for have an interest in the argument they’re making? If a source offers what seems to be a fringe position, can you explain why it’s fringy—why they haven’t persuaded a bigger chunk of the mainstream of their field to join their side? For every argument, what are the main counterarguments? For empirical evidence, what are the uncertainties: the measurement issues, statistical questions, or possible inconsistency with other findings?
There’s no getting around the challenge of this second step. It requires systematically thinking through the first-round information, locating gaps and squishy parts. There’s a limit to how thorough you can be, especially if you don’t have much expertise to draw on, but it’s the only antidote to the “little-knowledge-is-a-dangerous-thing” syndrome.
The final step is to move to active research. Instead of simply reading whatever comes your way on the basis of a very general search, you are actively seeking answers to the specific questions arising from your analysis. This can mean locating rebuttals to specific authors or arguments, detailed bits of information needed to evaluate empirical claims, or the missing pieces that the initial round of reading didn’t turn up. This requires more advanced search skills, which a knowledgeable teacher can help with.
The “research” that gathers up a clutch of anti-vax or other fringe Covid-related material is at best just the passive, stage one sort. Unless you move on from there you may end up less informed, or more misinformed, than you were before you started.
*Actually, the research methods discussed in this post are what practitioners call desk research or literature reviews. At the base of the food chain are the labors of researchers who themselves gather data, perform analyses or construct models to create new knowledge.