A particularly infuriating trend during the heights of the Covid-19 pandemic was people claiming that vaccines don’t work, or cause serious side-effects like infertility, or that “alternative” “treatments” like ivermectin were better. How did these people know? Well, they “did their own research“. Not only are these people spreading misinformation, but the consequences can be unhealthy at best or even deadly. So in this post, I want to help those hell-bent on this endeavor do better.

To start with, let’s go over the definition of research:

Scientific “research” is the systematic process of investigation. Evidence is collected via controlled experiments and evaluated in an unbiased, objective manner. Those methods have to be available to other scientists for replication.
What is not considered research: using a search engine to find information that confirms what you already think is true. Beware of confirmation bias.

Credit: chainsawsuit.com

Here is how NOT to do your own research:

(1) Don’t do your own research
As a scientist who is now in 22nd grade and working towards a PhD in biochemistry, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers. Even so, ‘Knowing what you don’t know’ is a big upgrade from ‘not knowing what you don’t know’. For scientific matters outside of my immediate focus area, I don’t have the full body of relevant knowledge that takes decades to master.

(2) Don’t listen to unverified anecdotes on social media
The general population will never know who is pulling the strings with a hidden agenda (and also profiting from conspiracies and false information). Watch out for anecdotes from people who say their friend/relative had something happen to them. There is no evidence of truth or a cause-effect relationship there. Like this tweet from rapper Nicki Minaj that got a lot of attention – this cousin was never identified and zero similar cases have been reported globally.

(3) Beware of fake experts or people with alternative motives
Watch out for people claiming to be experts – for example, Dr. Simone Gold is an American “doctor” who discourages vaccination against COVID-19 and promotes alternative, unproven therapies like hydroxychloroquine. Why would she do that? Turns out, you can achieve fame and fortune even if you peddle lies. In the summer of 2021, Gold’s Twitter followers grew to over 300,000. And outside of social media, doctors discouraging vaccination and spreading misinformation regularly appear on conservative radio and TV talk shows and on cable networks. Search laterally –  see what others are saying about a person or an information source. If a lot of it seems bad, maybe it’s best to not listen to that voice.

Here is how to do your own research:

(1) Listen to the experts
In his book ‘The Death of Expertise’, Tom Nichols writes “we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”
Again, look for reputable sources. And look for sources from different countries and continents – having a hard time trusting the CDC? Try the WHO or the British National Health Service (NHS).

(2) Take a course on statistics
Here are a few things to focus on:
– Correlation is not causation
– Statistical significance (p-values, p-hacking)
– Graphical representation
– Experimental controls
– Probability
– Sampling for statistical significance
– Population vs sample size
– Variability (normal distributions, central tendency {mean, median, mode}, standard deviation)
– Univariate analysis
– Bivariate and multivariate analysis
Yeah, that’s a lot of work but if you want to form your own opinions, you better be able to do the requisite math. If this sounds like too much, you are unfortunately not qualified to actually do your own research.

(3) Fact check!
In the internet age, there is simply too much information for us to parse through. Instead, rely on data triangulation. Are multiple separate (and reliable) sources saying the same thing? If so, it’s likely true. If you don’t like the Washington Post, check Al Jazeera or BBC. Don’t trust those, try something like AllSides or Media Bias/ Fact Check.
It’s easy to be swayed by cherry-picked studies or people with “Dr.” before their names. Humans, unfortunately, can be easily fooled. There are certain psychological phenomena that we’re all susceptible to if we’re not careful (see image below).

Source: thinkingispower.com

(4) Beware glossing over text you don’t understand
You decide that you want to look at some research articles on Covid to go straight to the source of the information. You’re reading an article from the New England Journal of Medicine with a sentence like “In an ongoing randomized, placebo-controlled, phase 1–2 trial involving healthy adults, the NVX-CoV2373 vaccine, administered in a two-dose regimen 21 days apart, had an acceptable safety profile and was associated with a strong antigen-specific polyfunctional CD4+ T-cell response and induced a neutralizing-antibody level that was four times the level in convalescent serum obtained from patients with predominantly moderate-to-severe Covid-19.”
Did you gloss over “B.1.351 variant” or “antigen-specific polyfunctional CD4+ T-cell”? Do you understand what a randomized, placebo-controlled phase 1-2 trial is? Those are crucial details. If you glossed over those aspects, you might be out of your depth and are prone to pulling information out of context. Don’t worry, it happens to all of us (scientists included).

(5) Ask a scientist!
A quick way to get real, agenda-free information is to ask a scientist! My website is always open for questions. Reach out!
“But Aman, the problem is I don’t trust you!” Ouch. But in that case, reach out to a professor at your nearest university. I have a question about Covid-19 and want to ask a professor so I Google’d “University of Minnesota virology professor” and a list of 30 accomplished professors popped up. Email them! Heck, email a few of them. Trust me, it would be the highlight of their day!

The takeaway
– When possible, listen to the experts. Don’t do your own research.
– If you must research something yourself, you need solid subject matter expertise and a grasp of statistics. Without it, you’re likely to reach misleading conclusions.
– Fact check and triangulate data sources. Beware of confirmation bias.
– Beware of bad-faith actors – they are making money spreading misinformation. Search laterally for what others are saying about any information source.
– TRUST SCIENTISTS – we devote our entire lives to discovering small truths that might benefit us all. We all love a good DIY but maybe research isn’t an ideal candidate for that.

As always, I’d love to hear from you! Shoot me a message with feedback, advice, criticism, and/or help.

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