It’s fairly common to see many claims or arguments end with a curt “do your research”. In some ways, it’s a bold call to action.
“Come on people! Wake up! You’ll see the truth of the matter if only you see it with your own eyes!”
This type of statement is highly evocative and persuasive – in an emotionally manipulative way. Here are four reasons why we should avoid telling others to do research when discussing a topic.
1. Burden of proof
There’s a general rule in argumentation: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” What this means is that if we make a claim about the world, we bear the burden of proving that our claim is true. Carl Sagan famously argued this as “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
This is an essential part of public discourse – if we want the public to agree with us, we must accept the burden of proof for demonstrating our ideas.
Say we want to make a claim like:
“The COVID-19 vaccine is poison.”
This is an extraordinary claim. We have a well-established track record of safe vaccines. To begin to take the “poison” claim seriously, we’ll need some serious facts to back it up.
Perhaps there are studies that demonstrate that a vaccine is poisonous or causes significant adverse reactions. But it’s still our job to provide that evidence – no one is required to take us seriously until we do.
Once that evidence is provided, we can evaluate whether that evidence is reliable and whether it relates to the main claim.
2. Confirmation bias
Our minds don’t always work by being slow, reasonable and deliberate – that would be exhausting. Instead we use what’s called heuristics (mental shortcuts) to enable us to act and behave quickly.
We use heuristics to make choices while driving in traffic, or deciding which way to dodge in a football game, or when to turn down the heat when cooking. There are simply too many tiny decisions to make every day to not have these shortcuts.
A cognitive bias is similar to a heuristic but with an important distinction – it comes with an error embedded in the decision.
A specific type of cognitive bias is a confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret facts and information in a way that supports what we already believe. For example, if we’re distrustful of government, we’re more likely to believe news stories about corruption and fraud on the part of our elected officials.
The problem with confirmation bias is that it leads us to irrationally privilege certain types of information over others. It’s much harder to change our minds when they’re already primed to believe certain things – about vaccines, for example. In our search for information, we’ll look to sources that support claims we already agree with or deny claims we don’t like. If we are already suspicious or fearful of a vaccine and someone says “do your research on the harms of the vaccine”, we’re more likely to cherry-pick individual cases of adverse vaccine effects.
3. Poor intellectual virtue
Someone who tells others to do the research is looking for others to come to the same conclusions they’ve already drawn. That’s not discussion or debate. It’s seeking uncritical agreement and social acceptance.
We all seek validation of our perspectives and beliefs, but we need to do more than this. We should welcome sincere engagement and criticism.
Effective democracies require that we engage with each other using intellectual virtues like honesty, open-mindedness and rigorousness. We should aim to be truth-seekers, looking to evaluate evidence and determine credibility in all things.
4. Unreasonable expectations
We can’t expect that everyone has the time to thoroughly examine every publication on a given topic. Even if it took only ten minutes to read a scientific article on vaccination safety (which is a huge underestimation for a paper that is thousands of words long), effective research would have us reading at least half a dozen of them to see what experts in the field are saying.
And that’s just reading. It isn’t counting the time to learn various terms and vocabulary in that field, to learn about the disagreements and schools of thought, or to form our own opinion on the quality of that research.
At a minimum, we’d be looking at hours of investigation for someone else’s argument. If the arguer puts forward their evidence, we’d still need to do our research on whether that evidence was accurate – but at least now we’re talking about minutes, not hours.
Becoming better at arguing
One of the most fundamental virtues in listening to each other and improving the quality of our discourse is curiosity. One of the real dangers for our lives is becoming uninterested in other perspectives – or, worse still, becoming uninterested in the truth itself.
We’ll never have a full picture of complex social and scientific problems. Our lives are busy and complex themselves and we simply don’t have the time to properly investigate every topic put before us. If someone wants to be taken seriously, the least they can do is present their argument in full.
We can still meaningfully engage with each other, but we have to be honest about our information and where we got it from.
It’s no good telling others to do our homework for us.