“Do your research!”

A line I see gracing every discussion about alternative therapies, diet, medical conditions and parenting decisions from breastfeeding to vaccination. But can you really do your research? Do most of us even know what that constitutes?

Parents- Do Your Research?

Take, for example, the issue of vaccination. I’m someone who has read up on vaccination extensively over the past 10 years. This includes books, publications put out by health authorities, studies and websites maintained by everyone from people with as many scientific/medical credentials as I have (so, zero) to those maintained by people with qualifications in medicine, science and research. Does this not mean that I have done my research?

vaccines cause autism

It really depends on who you talk to. In my opinion, the answer is no. Compared to the people who have spent years studying, who conduct formal research, who author studies, publish their findings and submit them for peer review? No, I haven’t done “research”. I’ve done some reading. I’ve applied logic to what I’ve read in that if a major health authority endorses certain studies or reviews, then I trust that their basis for doing so is better than the contradictory information I might glean from a blog post or a Facebook page. I have some training in research, from a writer’s perspective-but it’s really not the same as the research that people in scientific fields do.

Diet- Do Your Research?

It’s not only something that comes up in parenting; there’s a lot of discussion about diet, for a further example, with conflicting beliefs everywhere. I saw a discussion where one woman said her cardiologist, who is highly regarded in his field, advised her against too much coconut oil due to her cholesterol issues. Within minutes, responses included lamenting how wrong this cardiologist was, how uninformed, how backwards. Someone shared a link to this study, which they implied proved the cardiologist was wrong, with a comment that it had taken them 30 seconds to locate it. This study, however, was done on rabbits and not humans. It’s quite difficult to read, in my opinion, especially for a layperson like myself. I asked a doctor friend to have a look at it and she pointed out that this study was done in 1991, which makes it 15 years old. She didn’t think this study alone was enough to proclaim a cardiologist incorrect in his advice to his patient; this is from a qualified medical doctor with no stake in the situation at all.

Medical- Do Your Research?

In some circles, listening to your doctor’s advice is met with rolled eyes and sighs. Apparently, you shouldn’t listen to your doctor; you must “Do your research!” first. I’m not saying doctors are infallible; they are human, they make mistakes and can give poor advice sometimes. I know that when I had my last baby and was having initial trouble with breastfeeding, I felt that my doctor was dismissive and incorrect when she implied that there was no benefit to breastfeeding beyond the initial weeks. However, I had also read enough to know that her attitude was not in line with the position of the World Health Organisation or the Australian Health Department breastfeeding guidelines. My reading in this area made me confident in seeking suitable advice from my local lactation consultant and from experienced, educated peers. Does this mean I should write off the medical profession as a whole? I don’t think so.

It is a good idea to read up on things that concern you. In saying that, though, you should also keep an open mind. You might have read outdated information. You might have gleaned information from a website that looks reputable and seems quite legitimate but really isn’t. There are also plenty of examples where someone has written an article based on research that they have wildly misinterpreted. If you aren’t sold on what your doctor is telling you, ask yourself why that might be. Is it because you strongly believe they may be wrong, or because it doesn’t match your opinion? A good doctor should, I believe, address your concerns and be open to discussing with you what you’ve read. Talk to your doctor before deciding they are wrong and if warranted, look into seeing a specialist.

Are You Actually Equipped To Do Your Research?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any kind of science degree. Even if I did, I don’t have access to a lab. I don’t have a team of people to assist me. I don’t know how to best conduct a study. I don’t know how to submit my research for peer review. When it comes to the practicalities of scientific research, I am not equipped to perform it.  I don’t think that many people actually are equipped to do their own research.

SCIENTIST

So when someone implores you to do your own research, they are often actually asking for the impossible. There’s a big difference between doing some reading on a subject and combining this with actual research. If you’re someone that thinks reading a few websites is equivalent to research, there is a good chance they don’t know or understand what scientific research really involves. Reading blogs, health/medical/alternative/conspiracy websites, social media posts or even books does not equate to thorough research. Reading on it’s own isn’t the same as research- it’s just one facet of what is required. Unfortunately, this is what many people are are talking about when they say they have done their research. Taking the advice of your doctor is looked at with derision. Trusting medical professionals with years of experience and study under their belts will often earn be met with sighs and criticism. This isn’t okay. This breeds a climate of fear and conspiracy. You don’t have to take everything at face value. You can ask questions. You can read and learn. But assuming you are right, based on something you’ve read, and that the scientific consensus is therefore wrong, is dangerous ground indeed.

I Don’t Say I’ve “Done My Research” Anymore.

If my conclusions are significantly different to those reached by major health and science authorities, how can I rationalise that? This is not to say such authorities are absolute; they’re not. However, they are generally making recommendations based on the best available evidence. Recommendations change as we learn more. This means that studies are assessed for quality, compared to other findings and thoroughly examined by people who are qualified to do so. We need to recognise that this level of research is, more often than not, above and beyond our individual capabilities. I’m sure I’ve probably said that I’ve researched something at some point. But I’ve come to realise that I really can’t, and shouldn’t, make that claim when it comes to medical and health issues. I’m not a scientist or a doctor. When it comes to my health or the health of my family, I will say that I have read up, sometimes extensively, on certain things. But I know it’s not the same as having actually performed research. Saying I’ve “done my research” gives me an implied authority that I don’t really have any claim to.

You might think this all comes down to semantics and I guess it does, to a point. I just can’t help but think that by using the term “research” to mean “I googled it”, we are devaluing, if not actively ignoring, what real medical and scientific research actually involves. In reality, we all benefit from the thousands of hours of research done on our behalf. Whether it has lead to a vaccine to protect us, a medication to treat us or any other innovation to make our lives better, safer, longer and/or healthier, it is no small thing!

#IBOT @ Essentially Jess.

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  • I think the internet has made research harder in some ways – there is so much NOISE and everyone is an “expert”. I do not like those conversations on Facebook and the like asking dissenters to “back up their ideas with evidence” when the one making the point in the first place used no evidence whatsoever.

    • It gets so contentious. Another blogger made some health claims and I pointed out that there was little to no evidence of what she was saying. I got an absolute mouthful in return and it was implied that looking for evidence instead of “trusting anecdotal wisdom” was something to be pitied. She got really angry- anger often takes the place of evidence in these discussions, which says a lot!

  • Another thought provoking post Amy. I like to read-up on things and I constantly question medical experts.

  • Yes, I suppose we are devaluing the traditional meaning of the term. I’m always saying I’m ‘researching’ something, but in reality I’ve just done a bit of googling lol. Thanks for giving me some food for thought as per usual.

    • It’s mainly when it comes to health issues that I think we should drop the term!

  • Can most people do research? No. Google is not research. Can some people do research?

    Yes. I am a trained & experienced researcher in cross-disciplinary areas. It means I can assess the value of a source academically with actual accuracy & then talk to someone who knows more for further research & explanation.

    I really do feel for doctors who are harassed by Google expert patients but also – we research (using more than google) possible diagnosis for my husband a lot and talk to doctors about likihood of it & getting tested for it; because when there has been an undiagnosed chronic problem for five years it’s hard to get support & you know symptoms better than anyone else. But it is always followed up by discussion & tests as appropriate with a doctor.

    • See, you have training and seem to know not only what you’re doing but what your limits are. Google researchers often don’t know either.

  • Natalie @ Our Parallel Connect

    I never really looked at it that way – research for many is simply googling. Maybe it is best to get a second opinion instead of disagreeing with someone who has the degree

    • Exactly- even if we think we know something, we have to accept when we might be wrong!

  • I should clarify, I meant researching health issues. It can be just reading but even then, it’s not as simple as just choosing a few things to read at random (which is how so much internet research is done!) I agree- much better off reading something where the research has been done for you.

  • Betty

    In my past life I was an English and History teacher.

    For my students, their research was often just reading through reputable sources they could access through Google. This is an entirely different concept to that which The Doc and I engaged in while at uni.

    I would always try to get them to understand the concept of bias, perspective, peer reviewed, reputable etc. but they are kids. There’s only so much I can expect of a 13 year old!

    I often make the mistake of saying ‘I’ve done my research’. I most definitely know the difference between reading and research but I forget that when I say research I mean something entirely different to what someone else means.

    Can I just give a big shout-out of gratitude to those lamenting the role of the local GP. He certainly meets his fair share of Google experts

    Betty X

    • Yes, 13 is very young, but at least you gave them a basis to understand the difference- good on you! And my GP has a cartoon on his wall about not being a google doctor- I bet he’s had his fair share of “expert” patients!

  • What has always troubled me with studies and research, is who is funding these studies and research. For my family, I have searched high and low for a alternative health DR and a conventional DR with who I feel I can trust. A blend of both of their advice is working for our family, BUT that does not mean I feel that one person or another is right or wrong, simply that they are listening to what works for them.
    Another great thinking piece, thank you xx

    • I know a lot of people seem to think it’s bad that drug companies study their own products, but I look at it this way. Say a company makes a vaccine. It should be up to them to prove their product is safe and effective. But we must remember, it doesn’t stop there. We aren’t just taking their word for it. Their studies must then be peer reviewed. This is usually double blind- so neither party knows who the other is. This is done to ensure there is no bias. (Here’s a great article on peer review http://theconversation.com/explainer-what-is-peer-review-27797) . To me, with such standards to ensure research is unbiased, high quality and so on. So who is funding it becomes a lot less of a concern.

  • This fits in well with Bec’s post on cognitive bias today! Brilliant, as usual.

    • Doesn’t it! And we didn’t even plan it that way!

  • I couldn’t agree more. You know it’s the same with teachers. People think because they went to school they know all about teaching. It’s taken me decades of teaching to fine tune my practice and I still have plenty of learning to do. Everyone is a bloody expert since google.

  • Research, the proper kind, is so important. It almost devalues research if simply doing a google search can be equated with proper, evidence based research!

  • “I just can’t help but think that by using the term “research” to mean “I googled it”, we are devaluing, if not actively ignoring, what real medical and scientific research actually involves.”
    I think this is the crux of it. I hear that research word thrown around all of the time and I agree that it has been devalued by Google in this day and age. I think what people often forget as well, is that in a lot of studies there is usually at least one person who is in the dark about the expected outcomes of the research, so as to try and minimise any cognitive bias that can creep in. These days it’s really easy to find information to support whatever theory or belief you already hold and it’s why proper medical & scientific research is so important. More often than not it’s performed by people who have been trained to see beyond their own personal beliefs so as not to close themselves off to findings that are unexpected or don’t fit with those beliefs, something that most laypeople often do.
    #teamIBOT

    • Yes, many peer reviews are double blinded for that reason- to eliminate bias.

  • This is kinda timely as I’m having a lot of menopause-related problems. My doctor’s been very blase about the whole thing but now that my period’s stopping for periods of time (and returning) my symptoms (sleeplessnss, moodiness, sweats) have gotten worse. I’d like to start with some natural remedies and really need to do some research to find out what people recommend.

  • Everything changes, and research changes with it. It’s hard because we can find almost anything to ‘research’ on the internet these days, and then the way we interpret it can skew things further. I do work in a research field, but I also know the field I research is just one small area. I can talk to those things but would never talk out about others that I have only ‘read’ about. It’s great to question things, but I think many have to understand that by reading something, it doesn’t make us an expert. Some great points here, as always. xx

    • Thanks Sasha! Yes, the wild interpretation of evidence is a massive problem as well!

  • I think you can do ‘research’ depending on the topic. For example when choosing a school for our son next year we spoke with other parents, teachers, toured the school and also checked out their results online and were able to make a decision based on this. However when it comes to anything scientific, calling a google search ‘research’ is misguided and offensive.

    • For sure- I’m mainly talking about health related stuff here. Your school research though- you took in a variety of sources- much more thorough than a simple Google!

  • It’s just another of those words that has become misused so often that it has become the norm.

  • ‘Doing your research’ is definitely a flippant term in these days of Dr Google. Real scientific research, with proper studies and control groups and research ethics and evidence-based conclusions is such a far cry from what people accept as ‘research’. In my day job as an online news magazine editor I report on scientific research and I’m always torn in trying to balance the credibility and substance it deserves and presenting it in a simplified and intelligible way that people will actually read and and understand. When a lot of it ‘goes over my head’ I know we are talking serious research – the sort that changes the world instead of simply stirring the pot.

    • It must be hard! I have definitely seen research reported really badly in the media- such as the infamous “sibling study” done on breastfeeding. Poor quality study reported as absolute fact- how much damage did that do?

  • BRILLIANT. That is all.

  • Me again. I just started writing a post and wrote the word research. Next thing you know, Amy Ahearn pops up in my mind and says, ‘Renee, really? Did you really research that or did you just read up on it?” Lol. Argh. Thank you for challenging my mind 🙂

  • I’m old enough to remember the days when if we need to “read up” we had to get out an encyclopedia! Now reading up can be instantly gratifying. I remember after I got my cancer prognosis, my doctor told me I should make a full recovery but Google said I should be dead 2 years ago. The doctor pointed out that the research paper was not only old but misleading (in terms of the study etc) and politely suggested that if I did want to read up, that he could point me in the right direction. I haven’t consulted Dr Google since. And I think you are so right ” by using the term “research” to mean “I googled it”, we are devaluing, if not actively ignoring, what real medical and scientific research actually involves.” You nailed it.

    • Scary stuff! Cancer on its own is horrible enough but throw Google into the mix and we see where the Jess Ainscoughs and Belle Gibsons of the world get their hooks in- people who are looking for hope. Good on your doc for offering to point you in the right direction.

  • They absolutely do 🙁

  • Great read. I also get told “Don’t go to Dr Google”, so I tend to look things up to get a better understanding, but still be guided by the professionals. It’s when their opinions are conflicting that I get really confused about what to do!

  • Sarah from Bubsandbeans

    Love this, I think you also need to be careful not to go to Dr google with symptoms as you will always end up with a weird random disease

  • Cecelia Trncza

    Christ…THIS. I have worked as a researcher. The amount of times I read someone saying they have researched something, only to learn that they just looked it up on a website blows my mind. I had a friend print off an explanation of why canola oil was toxic because cows won’t eat. Since it was printed, with INK, it was the gospel. People just don’t get how to actually use the Internet sometimes.

  • It is so true. There is no point saying I have researched if you can’t tell the difference between quality information and junk. I know people who think clearly satirical websites are factual and present the information as fact!

  • I hear you, I very rarely say I have researched an issue as I believe it takes months in fact years to get all the facts. Great perspective!

  • This is a really interesting post. I actually worked as a research assistant to help pay my way through uni and I doubt that I would ever say that I have ‘done my research’ on a specific topic.

  • My GP sister-in-law has a coffee mug that says, “Do not confuse your Google search with my medical degree.”

  • Mel Roworth

    The amount of contradictory information on the internet is mind blowing. If you want to believe it, you will find at least one supporting article.
    I think for some, they’re way too invested to accept they may be wrong.

  • Great post. Whenever we go to my son’s pediatrician he always gives me safe links to go to to learn more about what my son is going through (such as his febrile seizures) because he knows I’m a googler and he doesn’t want me to stress. He said to me once that if I’m going to try and ‘do my research’ he can make sure I’m not scaring the beejesus out of myself for no reason. I find it helps me trust him as a doctor more and as we’ve gotten to know him better I tend to not google at all any more and just listen to him instead.