Doing your own research or trusting experts.

Expert trust and independent thinking: “Doing your own research”

Should we do our own research or trust the experts? In a world where answers often contradict each other, the choice between active exploration and passive trust becomes crucial. Let’s dip our toes as a starter.  

Many of us reflect on these last turbulent years in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We feel safe now, seeing that we can travel and enjoy a drink or two at our local bar. But that wasn’t always the case, and these past years marked us and left us grappling with several questions, including:

  • How severe was and is the virus, really?
  • From where did the virus originate?
  • Were the lockdowns effective or needed?
  • Should we have closed schools?
  • Should we mandate vaccines?
  • And what does this situation mean for similar future scenarios?

All these questions require a balance between our trust in experts and independent and critical thinking to make informed decisions. (You can read about a similar balance for healthy skepticism here.) Luckily, the pandemic offered us a silver lining: from the looks of it, people started increasingly appreciating the values and needs of critical thinking.

Of course, how we approached expert opinion and critical thinking differed. Some aligned with pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine stances and vehemently adhered to their respective viewpoints. Others got tired of all the back and forth between the two camps and disengaged.

Ultimately, one camp remained ignored in this dramatic action-comedy resembling anything from Rush Hour 2 to The Hunger Games. Media and debates overlooked those without allegiance to any particular camp. They ignore the few who actively analyzed the nuanced information from both sides of the spectrum. Where in the arena were these people?

Should we blindly rely on scientists for knowledge?

In a way, most pandemic discussions exposed a chaotic information landscape, where knowledge mixed a potpourri of truths, half-truths, value judgments, politics, and other interests. How can we distinguish between truth and falsehood in a turmoil of contradictions?

As a result, blind reliance on the chosen few may not seem too far-fetched. Some social media accounts and memes, including from scientists and their followers, warned non-scientists from “doing their own research.” After all, that’s what conspiracy theorists do, so we better remove our tinfoil hats and get back on track.

But jokes aside, as humans, we need to understand our surroundings. We constantly pick up cues to assess immediate dangers and rewards. Discouraging individuals from conducting research or restricting it to an exclusive group, akin to an Ivory Tower, goes against what we do best: researching our surroundings and problems.

Although I agree that non-scientists possess far less knowledge than experts in relevant topics, completely abstaining from researching may directly harm informed decision-making and community engagement.

Also, consider the motivating words related to knowledge, thinking, and growth in any quote collection.

“Knowledge is power.”

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

“The more you know, the more you grow.”

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

“Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Motivational quotes like these are almost endless. They highlight the importance of acquiring knowledge to improve the reader and society. Still, today’s discourse – at least some of the most visible ones – gives us the impression that independent thinking poses a danger to society. Newspapers warn us from “doing our own research.” (Feel free to search it on your preferred search engine tool to review the rest of the search hits.)

They say knowledge is power. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

But then again… didn’t they request we start thinking more and develop critical thinking skills (note that it’s the same news platform that warned us from doing our research)? Didn’t the prolific memes mock naïve and ignorant people who were “doing their own research”?

Categorizing our problems and doubts

How do we solve this dichotomy? On the one hand, we should rise to the occasion and think. On the other hand, we should trust the experts to know best and let them make the decisions.

Although complicated, it might be easier than it seems.

A quote comes to mind: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Putting it into our context, as long as we can’t specify the problem, we can’t solve it. To tackle pandemic-related and similar issues, we must highlight the real problem instead of merely labeling them as pro-vaxx or anti-vaxx.

Go back to the handful of problems I listed in the introduction above. We can chunk each question into comprehensive categories to then define the problem and tailor solutions accordingly.

For example, two categories that come to mind are “problems based on what we can observe” and “problems based on values.” Once we’ve labeled our questions accordingly, we can start discussing whether we should blindly trust the experts or do our own research.

In conclusion, this exploration highlights the importance of a nuanced approach to science- and society-related issues, emphasizing the need to categorize problems into empirical and values-based domains. A thoughtful balance between trust in experts and public engagement encourages inclusion and decision-making.

Let’s look into this in more depth in the future.

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This is Ivory Embassy

Ivory Embassy’s blog aims to ignite and inspire your curiosity and independent and critical thinking—molding a scientific mindset one step at a time.

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