Tag Archives: evidence

Do your own research!

There’s nothing like someone telling you to do your own research to flag up that they don’t understand science. Or research. Or the internet. Research is something that takes time, evidence and scrutiny. It might be fairer to say ‘educate yourself’ if you’re trying to challenge someone – that’s often the response of weary activists faced with people who want stuff explaining to them. ‘Educate yourself’ is a good idea. ‘Do your own research’ is usually the expression of someone who is buying into drivel.

It is true that historically, people doing the cutting edge thinking were often reviled by their peers. You can find it in many different disciplines. However, there has been some learning from all of this – which is why we have peer review, why results are tested, why we question assumptions as much as we can. It is not the case that being a lone maverick, rejected by the wider community means that you must be right.

It doesn’t help that conspiracies certainly do exist – and in our recent history that’s meant covering up the harmful impact of sugar, smoking, and fossil fuels amongst other things. It is always worth asking who benefits, and where the money goes. Science, research and thinking all exist within a market economy and so much depends on what you can sell, and for how much, and who thinks it might be worth funding.

If you want to educate yourself, here are some things I can recommend.  Be wary of anyone making very confident claims about ‘facts’ – this is not the language of science and research. More cautious sites are more plausible. ‘The evidence suggests’ is the tone to look for. Ideally, any site offering you conclusions about research will offer links to the studies it refers to. They might be beyond your reading capacity, but often will have a summery that a non-expert (like me) can make some sense of.

It’s also worth checking out ‘experts’ by sticking their names in search engines. An actual expert will likely have a publishing record, and a bunch of people who agree and disagree with them, and you can quickly get a sense of how they are perceived. It is easy to announce that you are a professor at a leading university – I could tell you that I am. I’d be lying, and you could easily find that out, but only if you looked. If my argument was the one you wanted to hear, you might not feel like you had to check out my credentials.

We’re likely to be more persuaded by theories that fit our existing beliefs, and likely to reject ideas that don’t sit well in all of that. Pushing past that is hard. If you want to be on top of an issue, it might not mean you have to listen to all sides of the ‘argument’ especially if some of that is coming from unqualified people, based on misinterpretation or wilfully misleading. There aren’t always two real sides to a thing. Asserting that there should be a debate is not proof that there should be a debate. It is possible to be open minded, and able to change your mind, without having to be swayed by every ill-formed opinion. If you find you need to form an opinion on something important, don’t ‘do your research’, educate yourself about what’s going on.

Ask for evidence

I’m picking up the themes Molly Scott Cato has suggested on her blog for resisting fascism – this week it’s about evidence.

Asking for evidence is always a good idea, even when we’re not fending off toxic far-right ideas. When we have evidence, we have consensus reality. When we have evidence, we can discuss the evidence and how it might be interpreted, and if you really want to challenge mainstream thinking in some way, this is the far better route to take.

You can have different opinions and interpretations. You can even have different data sets drawn from different studies in different times and places. It is ok to argue over this. It’s good and healthy to ask questions at this point. What you can’t have, are different facts that are really opinions being called facts and offered with the implicit demand that no one asks what’s going on.

The right to ask for and question evidence is key to making free speech work. It’s key to making democracy work. When you are expected to accept whatever you are told, unquestioningly, it’s a pretty good indicator that you are living under a tyrant.

I am suspicious as soon as people start talking about facts without also talking about evidence. Real science doesn’t give us that many facts. It gives us theories, probabilities, best information based on the data to date. If someone is cautious with their facts, or tries to explain where they come from, I am more likely to trust them. The more strongly asserted a ‘fact’ is the more likely I am to think it’s a lie.

Truth is often complicated, nuanced, and conditional on various factors. Often there is no hard and certain truth – as with weather forecasts. There is only likelihood. What is true in one situation won’t always hold up in another – whether we’re talking about human behaviour, or the behaviour of atoms. Change one variable and the whole thing can be radically different.

However, as humans we’ve bought into the idea that truth should be simple. We are more persuaded by clear statements than by caveats and clauses. It may be to do with how we’ve evolved, or a few thousand years of monotheism having given us ‘one true way’ thinking, but that’s what most of us default to. We want our truth plain and simple, and so too often we will take a plain and simple lie in preference to a complicated truth.

In the short term, the simple lie may be comforting, but it takes us further from any kind of truth, further from what helps us.

If you mistrust experts – as seems common in the current environment – don’t ignore them. Ask for their evidence. See if they offer evidence. Trust your own ability to look at evidence and think about it. The person who will show you their evidence and share the process of their thinking is far more likely to have your interests at heart than the person who expects you to take everything on trust.

When there aren’t two sides to a story

Suggesting that there are always two sides to a story may sound entirely reasonable, but I think it’s a notion that could stand some scrutiny. That the Flat Earth Society persists in stating that the world is flat, does not mean that they have an argument worth listening to. When the science is all on one side, and unsupported opinion dominates on the other, we are not looking at a two sided story, we’re looking at fact and fantasy. This is very much the case with climate change, where there is a consensus amongst the vast majority of scientists, and yet the other side of the story – a tiny minority – is given a platform to speak.

We live in an era that doesn’t discriminate between evidence based information, and opinion. It doesn’t help that the opinion side of any story will usually claim that there would be evidence to support their version if only the evidence side did their job properly. If the ‘facts’ are skewed by biased researchers, of course we shouldn’t trust them. The way that the tobacco industry successfully hid the dangers of smoking for so long is a case in point about how asserted ‘facts’ can turn out to be nothing more than marketing.

So, how do you tell if you’re seeing something reliable and evidence-based, or something that’s been paid for? Actual science tends to be wary of asserting facts. It offers theories that are open to change as new things are learned. Science tends to deal in probabilities, not certainties, so proper science can sound a bit cautious, even when its 97% sure about things. People working based on opinion tend to sound a lot more confident, which in turn can seem far more persuasive.

If you’re looking at something evidence led, there may be uncertainty over how best to interpret the data. You may get more than one possible interpretation. You may get questions raised about whatever hasn’t properly been studied. If someone asserts that they know what the data would look like if only someone did the proper research, there’s every reason to be wary.

When considering whether there could be two sides to a story, we have to consider the reliability of our sources. This is not an easy process, and the less education you have, the harder it can be to assess what might be reliable. You can end up mistrusting all authority and so called ‘experts’ if you’ve got no means of telling which ones are being as fair as they can be, and which ones are playing you for their own ends. That mistrust can then be played on by people who do not want you listening to good information, and people who want opinions to be as important as evidence. When those of us who have the privilege of better education and sharper thinking skills denigrate people who are more easily persuaded by less rational things, we feed into this. Denigrate a person and they have no reason to trust you.

Not all opinions have equal weight, either. The opinions of people who want more than their fair share and who want to hurt and harm others do not deserve to be accepted as valid. The opinions of people who are known to lie and manipulate for their own ends, do not deserve to be taken as seriously as the opinions of someone who has always acted well. People who have done the wrong thing, or who wish to exploit others, will say whatever they think it takes to get them what they want. It is in their interests to persuade you that there were two sides to this story all along. The apparently less tolerant person who won’t accept there could be two sides isn’t always the bad guy.

People who are working with evidence can and will show you their evidence. It takes more work on our part than listening to a sound bite. People who have no evidence will ask you to accept that they know best. They may offer that which is clearly too good to be true. They will assert that their evidence exists and that only prejudice keeps the data from being properly collected. They will be more likely to rubbish their opponent than tackle the details of the argument.

Sometimes there aren’t two sides to a story. Sometimes there is no debate to be had, and nothing worthy of being explored. Sometimes there is evidence on one side, and noise on the other. If you aren’t sure who to trust, ask who will benefit and in what ways, should you believe them.

Intellectual fraud

I’ve run into this issue in a number of places – in books, and when dealing with professional people who should know better. There is a form of intellectual fraud called circular logic. It occurs to me that one of the reasons it happens is that people using it do not realise it is inherently fraudulent as a way of thinking. It is a fraud because it so readily supports wrong answers, and if you employ it, you can run off down the wrong track without even knowing your are committing a fraud against yourself. My other thought is that if I share the method, it may help other people recognise books and authorities that are trying to manipulate them with circular logic, and thus defend against it.

As soon as we move from observation to asking what it means, we shift from fact to speculation. There are always multiple interpretations available for anything. Some may be more right than others, some may depend on circumstance or the observer. Good thinking holds the possibility for lots of interpretations. If more evidence comes in, it may be possible to see patterns or trends, or a balance of probability. There may even come a time when it is sensible to assert an interpretation as proven, or as fact. However, if you start with a theory, and interpret all of the information in the light of that theory, all you can ever get is ‘proof’ that supports the initial theory. You cannot be proved wrong, and you cannot perceive other interpretations. This is intellectual fraud and it is very dangerous.

For example, we dig up a body from the Celtic era where there is evidence of violent death. We assume sacrifice. We then look for reasons as to why that person would have made a good sacrifice, and whatever is a feature of them becomes a reason. We look at why their location was relevant for sacrifice, and we see some kind of feature and latch onto it as being relevant. We look at the manner of death and interpret it as being sacrificial, and then find something to associate it with that makes sense. We then take all the results of our work and present them a proof that the chap was sacrificed. There is no reason why he couldn’t have been murdered or executed, but we never looked at that.

I wish I was making this up, but I’ve just read the Ross/Robins ‘Life and Death of a Druid Prince’ and it’s like this all the way. When it comes to unpicking history and getting a realistic view of the past, this is bad enough.

It also happens in our day to day lives. We assume that someone is getting at us, so we interpret everything they do and say in this light, and thus we always feel threatened and offended by everything they do and say. We cannot hear the possibility that we’ve got something wrong. We assume we know a person’s motives, interpret accordingly, and never move from our initial assessment to true understanding. If we start out by thinking we know, and making the facts fit, it is impossible to learn. There is no way of seeing something we hadn’t thought of, of making real discovery or of having proper relationship.

What is most frightening, is when someone in a position of power and authority settles on a theory and will not let it go no matter what the evidence. When you watch everything being twisted to fit the other person’s story and are powerless to stop it. I have no idea how you fight that, but it looks like I am going to have to learn. I’m reminded of something I heard on the radio, years ago. A woman who had been diagnosed with severe mental health problems, and sectioned. When she told her doctor that she thought she was making progress and might be able to recover, this was written down as further proof of her being delusional. For people dealing with mental health issues, fighting this kind of intellectual fraud in the circular logic of authority figures, is terrifying and really hard.

I would imagine that if the medical profession, police, or social services, or any other such body make an assessment and then will only interpret new information in the light of it, your life rapidly becomes a nightmare. I’ve been lucky on that score, doctors, police and social services have been open minded, receptive and supportive in my life. But some years ago I dealt with teachers who had decided that bullying was not happening, and made themselves blind to all evidence. Some years on one boy is in a special school, one has an autism diagnosis and one needs a lot of help to rebuild self esteem and social skills. A willingness to look at the evidence objectively would have spared three families a lot of grief.

Sometimes the cruellest and most destructive thing we can do is cling to the idea that everything is fine and normal. By bending all evidence to fit that belief, we distort lives, keep victims powerless, support mistreatment, remove the scope for change, healing or progress and fail to uphold our own honour.