“doing my own research” & the scientific method

This evening I was engaging in polite conversation (well, I was polite, anyway) on an RNZ Facebook post about – you guessed it! – the covid19 vaccination program. One of those present offered up a link to a blog post by Joseph Mercola to support a claim he was making about the vaccines. When I pointed out that Mercola is an osteopath, who makes a lot of money from selling products that included fake cures for covid19 (he got an FDA warning for that), my interlocutor said that the source was fine because it was “with references to verify what he says. You know, the scientific method.”

To me, this highlights a key problem with many of those who claim to have “done their own research” or tell me to do mine. They don’t really know what that entails.

For a start, providing references isn’t exclusive to science and scientists. Researchers in any discipline do that. But more to the point, they assess the nature and quality of those references – are they current, relevant, accurate, written by people who are experts in the field, & so on. (I’ve written previously about this here & will have another post up on this issue shortly.) Simply providing a list of references (or links to them) isn’t enough by itself. So I did what the chap who provided the link hadn’t done: I looked at the references. One, which on the surface led to documented “proven treatments”, actually went to another blog post. Linked definitions & descriptions which purportedly supported the claims didn’t. One cited “expert” described the viral spike protein as a pathogen (it’s not – a pathogen is an organism that causes disease, & a protein is not an organism). And so on.

So, providing a list of references is not “the scientific method,” but is a part of writing in any discipline. A part that requires checking of those references fairly closely – and that’s something that we can all do, using a tool like this one.

In which case, what is this thing called “the scientific method”? It’s essentially an empirical way to gain knowledge – one that’s been used by scientists for at least the last 300 years. Scientists generate hypotheses (predictions based on initial observations and questions – and importantly, predictions that are falsifiable), test those predictions using experiments and observation to gather data, consider their results, reject or refine their predictions, & test again. (The Khan Academy provides a nice walk-through, but you will be able to find plenty of other similar descriptions.) Eventually, after writing up their work, including placing it in the context of what’s currently known in the field, they’ll submit it for peer review, & may ultimately get it published and so add to what we know about that particular aspect of our world. (Incidentally, what that rather dry description misses out is that science also involves an element of creativity, and a healthy dose of skepticism. This things are discussed in this interesting paper.)

Sadly, what passes for research among many of the social media commentariat seems to entail reading (or watching) sources that agree with a pre-existing point of view, without any recognition of the confirmation bias inherent in doing that. It’s not particularly skeptical, it’s definitely not scientific, and it’s not research as any trained researcher (in any discipline) would understand the term.

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