I knew a conversation at the start of the pandemic was going downhill fast when the other person said, “I’ve done a lot of research on this, and I have good reason to believe these people wearing masks on their faces are cutting off the flow of oxygen they need to breathe!”
A similar conversation hit another dead end: “Well my wife has all kinds of respiratory problems and she’s done a lot of research on those COVID vaccines. She’s afraid they’re just going to make things worse.”
These were two separate conversations that started casually and innocently enough and then suddenly turned into a very high stakes health conversation with implications far beyond our individual health. These stakes extend to everyone in our immediate circles and then to everyone within their circles, and so on.
Both conversations included claims of “having done research” as the justification for a controversial, if not contrarian point of view that runs against all scholarly research, expertise, and standard medical practice. Yet, in the heat of the moment, it’s probably not even worth debating the points–let alone possible to debate them.
On the face of it, there appears to be my sources of research vs. another person’s sources of research. We all struggle with confirmation bias and blind spots, so how can we say who is right and who is wrong?
Yet, not all sources of research are the same. Defying expertise and scientific guidance can become a kind of lifestyle, a contrarian mindset, or even a rebellion against scholarship that seeks personal liberty from the supposed limitations imposed by experts. It seems at times that it almost feels irresponsible to trust an expert or to follow a scholarly consensus.
“Doing some research” can feel responsible and even necessary. Given the right sources, it can be very helpful. Yet, once you latch onto the wrong sources, the downward spiral away from useful research that could bring you and others some benefit can seem endless. In the worst cases, we end up with a kid of alternate version of reality with faux experts and faux sources scientific and scholarly consensus.
“Doing some research” can become a way to latch onto conspiracy theories that deliver supposed insider knowledge and a sense of purpose in life–being special and able to discern what the vast majority just accept at face value. In Christian circles this commitment to personal research and opinions can almost feel prophetic, or it can at least feel like being on the narrow road to the truth that many miss.
My concern is that not all “research” is equal today, and even worse, people are endangering themselves and their family members by relying on the wrong voices.
There is no shortage of misguided, deceptive, and bad faith voices today. Social media and television ensure that we never have to miss a conspiracy, a trending social media post, or an inflammatory video.
If I could remove some of the tension and defensiveness from those conversations with people who have “done some research,” here are a few things I would want to discuss with them from my experience with research as an author of nonfiction books who relies on good research for his livelihood.
Not Many of Us Should Become Teachers
As someone who writes and preaches regularly for others, I am often mindful about the great responsibility I bear in what I communicate in the public domain as a commercially published author and lay preacher. One particular Bible passage looms in the back of my mind:
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes…” James 3:1-2a, NRSV
What I teach others can have a significant impact on their mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual health. Each line in my sermons and books is weighed against my confidence in their accuracy and the burden in my conscience to present ideas to my audience that are highly likely to be true.
A big part of what I do as a nonfiction author is research, and after working with several publishers over the years, I came to appreciate the rigorous fact-checking and source quality standards at each publisher. Several editors combed through my books to make sure my statements were accurate or backed up by sufficient reliable evidence.
For me, commercial success or popularity in my niche is not worth sacrificing the challenge of James to take my words with appropriate gravity. I won’t court attention by playing fast and loose with the truth, assuming the worst about another point of view, or stirring up a fight based on dodgy details. I’m grateful for editors who would hold me to a high standard if I ever made a compromise.
My drive to write or preach doesn’t come from wanting to be noticed. It’s just something that wells up from within and has been recognized by others as a gift to share. The honor of ministering to others with my words also comes with the weighty responsibility to examine my past failures and to prayerfully move forward with care.
I’m under no illusions about my limitations when it comes to research. I’m married to a university professor, and we have many friends who are professors. I’ve seen first hand the breadth of knowledge and analytical ability that experts in their fields have. When a consensus of scholars with expertise in their fields agree about something, you better believe I’m going to shelve my own research and listen to them.
Yet, with social media and YouTube, anyone can instantly become a teacher without necessarily weighing the consequences for others. That is true for people I agree with and disagree with.
Today, anyone can crank out conspiracy videos that “just ask questions” or that boast “having done some research” into vaccines. Greater visibility too often requires making the material more provocative or controversial, not truthful, helpful, or constructive.
At the foundation of our misunderstandings and disagreements about the “research” we’ve done is a massive quality issue. High viewership on television or lots of shares on social media doesn’t mean the ideas are reliable or the creator can be trusted to value good information over high engagement for profit.
There’s always a place for rigorous debate among experts when it comes to public health. Conspiracy theories and contrarian reporters tend to look for the outliers, the compelling exceptional anecdote, or the “lone courageous” voice taking on the scientific “establishment.”
We end up with a lot of dodgy ideas presented as “research” by amateurs that is suddenly considered on roughly equal footing with people who have devoted their entire careers to the scientific disciplines in question.
It’s a great narrative for a novel. It’s not great for a public health catastrophe.
Personal Responsibility vs. Death by Anecdotes and Conspiracies
We all know a story of someone who beat the experts, or the one contrary person who correctly stood up against group think and expert assumptions. There will always be occasional outliers and the lone revolutionary who gets things right when the masses are wrong.
Yet, we shouldn’t swing in the opposite direction, especially when it comes to science and public health. The few intriguing exceptions should not become the rule.
Anyone can make a YouTube video and raise doubts and questions that rile people up with conspiracies and make people wonder. Anyone can draw random connections between unrelated trends and claim to have discovered a secret.
Who wouldn’t want to be the person in on a secret? Who wouldn’t want to be the underdog champion who beats the best of the experts?
It’s a compelling narrative that can also tap into a sense of pride and a desire to be special or to be an insider who is “in the know.”
Just the other day I was watching highlights from a hockey game on YouTube and a suggested video popped up in the sidebar that caught my eye. The title was something like, “Farmer has questions about COVID-19 Vaccine.”
Based on his skeptical expression and gestures along with the quirky font choices for each vaccine maker, it was clearly a video casting doubts on vaccines that have been vigorously tested and approved by the FDA. These are the same vaccines taken by the most powerful politicians in both American political parties, including all of the most recent Republican and Democratic presidents, as well as Senators in both parties who have access to the top medical minds in the nation.
My initial thought upon seeing this screen shot was, “Why should I trust a farmer’s opinion about vaccines?” That’s a bit like asking a hockey player to help you decide what to do with a toothache or a leaking pipe.
We should never discourage people from researching their health options, and it’s counterproductive to mock those who choose a path different from our own. Yet, there is a huge quality, experience, and expertise gap today.
There is a world of difference between a farmer calling his doctor, shooting an email to a local biologist, or reading summaries of scientific journals in order to make up his mind about a health decision and a farmer passing his own skepticism as worthy of attention on social media alongside lifetime infectious disease experts.
In order for someone like that farmer to be right in his COVID-19 vaccine skepticism, a whole bunch of the top disease experts in the world would have to be wrong.
Every FDA panelist, doctor, nurse, and epidemiologist in America who gave these vaccines the green light would be wrong.
Every health authority, doctor, and epidemiologist who approved these vaccines in approximately 164 countries would also be wrong.
I would caution that farmer about presuming to be a teacher about vaccines.
Yes, individuals may have done “some research” into the safety of these vaccines or listened to a report on a news program that they believe to be credible (even if the report was largely driven by anecdotes), but is there any other area in our lives where we’re willing to dismiss the consensus health advice of thousands of experts from around the world?
Have we ever worked so hard to find contrary opinions from anybody else who appears to be a doctor in order to contradict what every serious doctor and researcher has told us to do?
The COVID-19 vaccine safety debate isn’t like diet and fitness experts debating about the best ways to lose weight, to gain muscle tone, or to prevent heart disease.
The safety discussion over the COVID-19 vaccine safety is much closer to the passionate arguments that assert the earth is flat. The two sides aren’t even close.
Those arguing for the safety of the vaccines have a scientific consensus behind their research. The other side has little more than a few random doctors getting a few minutes of fame on television and farmers making YouTube videos.
The main difference is that we can only prove the COVID-19 vaccines, which are working unseen in our bodies, are safe by pointing at charts and spreadsheets, scientific studies, and many, many personal anecdotes. That’s a much harder narrative to communicate to people than snapping a picture of the earth from a space station and saying, “See, the earth is round, case closed.“
Rest assured, as long as provocateurs can attract attention on social media by being contrary and as long as some equate independent thought with rejecting expert advice, we’ll still have people who reject the reality of safe vaccines.
Research Doesn’t Necessarily Change Minds
For all of our talk about the value of reliable research and the dangers of low quality sources, it turns out that research can only do so much to change a skeptic’s mind. In fact, a series of panel discussions with vaccine skeptics who later changed their minds found that many relied on trusted sources who could interpret reliable research for them.
The trusted individuals who turned the tide on vaccine skepticism included personal doctors, pharmacists, and well-known CDC or children’s hospital doctors they had relied on in other situations. Some people changed their minds when they heard first hand accounts of those suffering from long COVID who then found relief from the vaccine.
Those who changed their minds tended to have existing relationships with people that weren’t oriented around whether or not they should take the vaccine. They trusted these individuals with their health in the past, and so they were more willing to trust them today.
In addition, the personal testimonies of individuals about the benefits of the vaccine helped remove the unknown nature of the vaccine’s impact. Instead of trusting that the vaccine was preventative, they could see a marked improvement among people who had no reason to lie about their conditions.
It turns out that we can always benefit from doing some research that depends on reliable sources, but it’s often best to find experts we trust who can help us figure out what to do with the research we find.