Recently, Forbes published an article called “You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research’ When it Comes to Science.” The author, and astrophysicist and science educator, asserts the same tired old lines that experts often do: the average person is dumb. They can’t understand the depth and breadth of all the knowledge in the field, in order to put new information into proper context, and ought to just let experts explain to them what the right decisions are.
This has been the party line for years from “science experts.” And, to some extent, they have a point. But then again, they don’t.
This is why, generally, they’re wrong.
Listen to Science Experts…Sometimes
The concern with “lay people” looking at scientific research has been that they do not have the education to understand it.
It’s true, that studies are not always easy to read. To get the full picture, you have to understand how studies are designed, statistical modeling, power, what conflicting studies say, what larger confirming (or refuting) studies have concluded, and the greater context into which the knowledge fits. It’s not simple to pick up a study on, say, sugar consumption, and know exactly the right amount of sugar any individual can/should eat.
Scientists become concerned that the average person is just going to read headlines, or maybe abstracts, and pick out the sentences and phrases that back up what they want to believe, which fits their biases. And, okay, since most of us don’t have endless amounts of time to really read all the studies, and our education system is woefully lacking, sometimes we will do that.
But in most regards, it’s actually okay.
Health is Personal
Here’s what they’re missing: there are a lot of different fields of science. There’s astrophysics like the author is in. There are paleontology and marine biology… All of these fields, and many more, deal with parts of the world around us. Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about those fields on a day-to-day basis, because unless we’re enthusiasts, they don’t affect us.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember the last time that a bunch of people confronted marine biology experts and told them that they had ‘done their research’ and they thought the biologists were wrong… Because why would they? Marine biology doesn’t affect us physically. We leave the science to the scientists.
But health is an entirely different animal, and simply cannot be treated the same manner.
Health is the care of our own bodies. It’s personal. It’s not something out there that the experts can discuss and debate and work on for years while we hardly know it’s even going on. It’s something that affects us daily.
Asking us to acquiesce to the experts on paleontology or marine biology is not like asking to acquiesce when it comes to our own well-being.
Health research changes yearly. Sometimes even weekly. We’ve all seen the experts quibble over whether eggs or coffee are good or bad for us for decades now, and there’s still no firm consensus on that. (As with many health topics, it seems to depend on what kind of coffee or eggs, what quantity and how frequently it’s consumed, what works well with your body, etc.)
We can’t wait for experts to “figure it out,” nor can we assume that what they believe today is the complete and final truth. We also can’t take any health advice as fully universal, because although trends may be present, everyone is just a little bit different. And we want to be healthy now.
What happens if an expert is wrong about a marine habitat and how an animal interacts with it? Maybe the new information makes it to the media, and if we see it at all, we think “Cool, and now we know that.”
But what happens if they are wrong about an aspect of our health? We are the ones who pay the price. We live with the consequences of doing or not doing something. How do we tell people that, when it’s literally their lives, that they don’t have a say? That they “shouldn’t” be doing their own research? That their feelings, thoughts, knowledge, or experiences don’t matter?
And yet that’s what they’d like us to believe. That somehow, we should abdicate control of our own bodies to “experts.”
You MUST Do Your Own Research When it Comes to Health
Your body is yours, and it’s the only one you have.
When it comes to staying well, it’s completely on you. Our medical system is not set up to keep people healthy. It’s set up to detect and manage disease. It is up to you to figure out what combination of diet, exercise, and other wellness activities make you, individually, feel your best.
Even if doctors were trained on wellness — which they’re not — they don’t have time to thoroughly examine a patient’s lifestyle and counsel them when they are already healthy. They’re too busy.
If you want to be healthy, it’s up to you to do that research, to figure out what makes the most sense to you. If you should drink the coffee or eat the eggs (or not).
But, let’s get back to that point at the beginning: what does the average person do when research is varied and complicated? Do they slog through it and miss details, or do they “trust the experts?”
The answer is: both.
When it comes to health challenges, sometimes an expert’s guidance is helpful. If you need an expert, seek one out. Ask them questions. Do some reading on your own, too, and bring that reading in to run by the expert to see if they can explain parts you might not have understood or if they have conflicting research for you. Many times, patients have helped themselves by bringing new information to their doctor’s attention.
Any good doctor will want to partner with a patient in this manner. After all, they can see you for 15 minutes and write you a prescription and give you some advice, but you have to go live with it.
It’s also important to trust your instincts and your lived experiences. The author of the Forbes article, who has no expertise in biology or health, claims that vaccines “essentially never” cause side effects beyond local soreness and that any side effects are so rare they’re probably just a coincidence.
But if you or a loved one get a vaccine and have a bad reaction, trust that experience. Without sounding cliche, a lot of research is biased, poorly done, underfunded, and conflicting. And as I mentioned above…you can’t wait for research to “catch up” to your lived experiences and validate you, because you only have one life.
I’m not suggesting that people never read the research (I do often). I’m not suggesting people never consult with experts and include their advice as part of their research (they should). “Research” means articles, studies, expert consults, and lots more, until you are satisfied with your answer and willing to live with whatever the outcome will be.
We’re all human. And that’s kind of the point. One group of humans does not get to tell the rest of us what it means to be humans and how to best care for ourselves. We all get to decide that on our own!