Thursday, 17 March 2016

"Do Your Own Research" - Crackpots and the Burden of Proof

Over the years I have been defending mainstream science from crackpot views such as YEC, homeopathy, geocentrism, and germ theory denialism, I've noticed that when advocates of these pseudoscientific views are losing the argument or are asked to provide credible evidence for their views, quite often, they respond with a passive-aggressive 'do your own research', and leave the debate. "Do your own research," of course is an evasive rhetorical trick which ignores the fact the person advocating the minority view has the burden of proof and is obliged to defend that view. As a rule, the moment you hear anyone pushing a fringe view utter those words, you can immediately dismiss them as a poorly informed crank. Here's why.

What many cranks fail to appreciate is that doing your own research involves more than cherry picking material found by Google. It requires real, hard-won knowledge. Fields such as immunology, microbiology, astrophysics, isotope geochemistry, palaeontology, and evolutionary biology require years of study to master, then active ongoing research and collaboration with other experts to maintain and expand that knowledge base. The layperson pushing a crank view who claims to have 'done her own research' or dismisses questions with a glib call to 'do your research' simply won't have both the detailed knowledge base and critically, the ongoing interaction with other professionals where ideas are floated, refined, and rebutted. The outsider who claims that the consensus view is wrong, but has never engaged at a professional level the scientists whose expert opinions make up that consensus view simply is not in a position to be taken seriously when they claim that that consensus is false.

While cranks have always been with us, the ease with which Google allows people to search for information has created the dangerous illusion of expertise. Having access to unlimited information means nothing unless you are able to critically appraise it, to sort out nonsense from fact. Furthermore, research is not simply reading articles that favour your pre-determined view. It requires both a solid grasp of the science, and long, painstaking scientific experiments carried out in a rigorous environment. As Tim Harding notes:
For them, ‘research’ means nothing more than googling for an hour or so on the Internet. They naively equate such googling with the years of study and experience it takes to become a qualified expert.  Their message is that anybody with internet access can become an instant but unqualified expert on anything.  Or worse still, that expertise doesn't even count – all opinions are equal. [1]

This belief that 'all opinions are equal' ignores the difference between the freedom of people to have their own opinions, and the simple fact that some opinions are false, being based on lies and nonsense, and deserve nothing but ridicule. You are certainly entitled to believe that the Earth is flat, but no one is obliged to accept your opinion as equally valid as the long-accepted view that the Earth is roughly spherical. Some claims about reality are going to be false, and no amount of wailing about 'I'm entitled to my opinion' will make those opinions magically true.

Philosopher Patrick Stokes, writing in The Conversation nailed this point perfectly:
Every year, I try to do at least two things with my students at least once. First, I make a point of addressing them as “philosophers” – a bit cheesy, but hopefully it encourages active learning.

Secondly, I say something like this: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse. [2]
Stokes' assertion that the false equivalence between experts and non-experts is a pernicious feature of public discourse is depressingly evident when we see the resurgence of previously controlled infectious diseases such as measles due to the spread of anti-immunisation arguments touted by uninformed amateurs and cranks. [3] You are only entitled to what you can argue for, and when we refer to scientific or medical subjects, that requires you to know your subject very well (that is, be formally qualified) and actually do legitimate research that is scrutinised and reviewed by other experts. Put this way, it says much for how badly damaged public discourse has become that anyone would even think that a rambling diatribe from a non-experts is just as valid as expert consensus.

So, where does that leave the believer who is confronted by a noisy group who insist that their views on reality are true? New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado provides advice which while aimed ostensibly at arguments in his area of expertise is equally applicable elsewhere:
So, how does some innocent peruser of the Web who isn’t an expert in a given field judge a claim about something in that field?  Well, is it being made by someone who appears to have the requisite training for that subject? Is it from someone with an established reputation in that subject?  (And the Web now makes it fairly simple to check up on people.)  Or, if it’s from an emergent scholar, is the claim published in a peer-reviewed journal or from a respected publisher (who uses peer-review)?  If not, then I’d advise you not to bet more than a tuppence on it.

Think of the Web/Internet as something like a postal service.  You can send all sorts of things through the post (and much more via the Internet that wouldn’t easily or legally get into the post!).  So, simply because something is “published” on the Web doesn’t mean anything by itself.  The key questions concern the qualifications of the person authoring the material, and whether it’s been adequately reviewed and had critique by those competent in the field.
Those two questions - what are the qualifications of the person making the claim and has that claim been reviewed and critiqued by competent experts in that field - are more than enough to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the astronomer from the geocentric crank, and the medical researcher from the anti-vaxxer.


1. Harding T "How Dr Google spawned a new breed of health ‘experts’" Australian Doctor 30th October 2015
2.Stokes P "No, you're not entitled to your opinion" The Conversation October 5 2012
3. Unsurprisingly, Stokes' article spent some time on this very subject, and noted the inevitable wails of 'censorship' that come from anti-vaxxer zealots. Stokes ably notes that "[this response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here."
4. Hurtado L "Expertise and How to Detect it" Larry Hurtado's Blog July 15 2013