Doing your own research: what’s possible and what’s not.

Yesterday I posted a link to a piece about “doing your own research.”

Unless you’re an expert in the field you’re “researching,” you’re almost certainly not able to fully understand the nuance and complexity of the topic. Experts have advanced degrees, published research, and years of experience in their sub-field. They know the body of evidence and the methodologies the researchers use. And importantly, they are aware of what they don’t know.

Inevitably several people wrote to complain about individual doctors who were wrong. For example:

There is a big difference between an individual doctor being wrong and the fundamental principles of medicine being wrong.

The problem with these narratives is that there are plenty of situations where doctors misdiagnose patients or give them no diagnosis at all. Then we need to do our own layman’s research.

To understand why that observation misses the point, consider these situations:

1. The salesperson at the local Ford dealer tells you that the car you are considering is very reliable. You do “your own research” and learn from Consumer Reports that there are many other cars that are more reliable. You buy a different car.

vs.

Having done “your own research” you conclude that the combustion engine never works, all car dealers are frauds and walking from place to place is more reliable and practical than driving.

2. The provider you use to host your website is expensive, has poor design tools and has frequent outages that leave your website offline. You do “your own research” and learn of other providers that have better records. You switch to a one of those and find your website is now online all the time and you are saving money to boot.

vs.

Having done “your own research” you conclude that the internet is a scam and that no one could make money through a website.

3. Your 2nd grader is having terrible trouble learning to read. The teacher counsels patience but you do “your own research” and learn that children who are having trouble reading often have a learning disability like dyslexia. When you take your child for neuropsychological testing you’re told that she is indeed dyslexic. With proper tutoring to compensate for the disability she learns to read and loves it. You conclude that not every teacher is knowledgeable about learning disabilities.

vs.

Having done “your own research” you decide schools pressure children and that you will “unschool” your daughter, letting her learn to read in her own time. By age 11 she still can’t read but other mothers in Facebook unschooling groups reassure you that it’s nothing to worry about.

Can you see the difference?

“Your own research” can allow you to compare various purveyors of the same product, whether that product is a car, an internet provider or a teacher.

But “your own research” CANNOT determine whether the fundamental principles underlying the product — be it cars, the internet or education — are true or false. That requires advanced education and experience, both of which most lay people lack.

Part of the problem is that the language that laypeople use elides the fact that there are two types of “research.” There is the “research” of surveying other people’s experience to determine what is the best choice to meet your needs. That’s very different from real research that determine fundamental scientific principles.

There is nothing wrong with SURVEYING the experiences of people who have similar needs or similar problems. When determining whether a car or a web host is reliable, it is extremely helpful to survey the experiences others had with many different cars or web hosts. When trying to determine whether your child has a learning disability it can be extremely helpful to learn about the varied experiences of other children who had similar difficulties learning how to read.

But that’s very different from “doing your own research” to determine whether the underlying principles of combustion engines or the internet or unschooling are correct.

That’s true for medicine, too. There’s nothing wrong with SURVEYING the experiences of others who have similar needs or problems to determine whether your doctor’s diagnosis is correct or whether his recommendations are right for you. But there is simply no way for a non-expert to do “your own research” to determine whether the fundamental principles of medicine are true.

So while you can note that your child was diagnosed with autism 6 months after receiving the MMR vaccine, and you can SURVEY other parents of children with autism to learn if they had similar experiences, you CANNOT do “your own research” to determine whether vaccines cause autism. Only scientists and statisticians can do that.

While you can discover a lump in your own breast and SURVEY others who also found lumps in their breasts to justify demanding a mammogram when your provider is reluctant to order one, you CANNOT “do your own research” to determine whether or not you have breast cancer. Only doctors — internists, radiologists, pathologists and oncologists — can do that.

While you can decide that you’d like to have a certified nurse midwife as your provider for pregnancy and SURVEY others for midwives they liked and with whom they felt comfortable, you CANNOT “do your own research” to determine whether refusing birth interventions is safe. Only obstetricians and statisticians can do that.

The bottom line is that there is a big difference between an individual doctor being wrong and the fundamental principles of medicine being wrong. Doing “your own research” (surveying others) can help you determine the former but never the latter.

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