One of the more common expressions we hear today when talking to people about how they make their healthcare decisions is “I did my own research.” Granted, being a critical consumer and refraining from unconditional passive compliance is generally healthy and constructive, but “doing one’s own research” can become counterproductive when “research” includes routinely dismissing expert advice in exchange for convenient — though far less credible — internet searches. “Doing our own research” is fine, to a point, but when we convince ourselves that we are fully capable of knowing just as much as experts simply because we are good at Google searches, we leave ourselves very vulnerable — sometimes even life-or-death vulnerable. As a professor who has taught graduate research courses for many years, I can emphatically state that a quick Google search is rarely, if ever, on par or better than learning what an expert in the field might offer. The word “research” gets so loosely tossed around these days that to many people it simply means a few quick keystrokes at your computer. Real research, however, includes many important steps relating to subject sampling, research design, defining variables, and important discussion that follows the study relating to how the data should be interpreted, as well as the limitations of the study. Rarely, if ever, does a Google search provide such robust detail, and even if it did, without proper scientific training your understanding of research studies may be limited. It is for these reasons that I urge people to use caution “doing their own research,” especially in cases where that is the only research you seek.
Empirical research: The basics
First, it is important to understand that the slang term “research” is very different than what an academic means when he or she discusses “research.” For example, you might “research” the lowest price in town for big screen tv’s, and it would make perfect sense to do a quick internet search to see what store offers the best prices. With price being the only consideration, it is generally not very difficult to “research” the best price. But what about bigger issues in life? Does a quick internet price check approach work in all situations? If you have read this far, then you obviously know the answer is no.
Using a second example, lets say you are experiencing car trouble and hear a strange sound under the hood. You certainly could watch a couple videos on YouTube and try and figure out the problem yourself, but if you are as mechanically-lacking as I am then it is very unlikely any YouTube video is going to be on par with taking your car to a legitimate service garage run by licensed mechanics. Yes, Google and YouTube certainly have their place, but using either as a replacement for real experts who possess a wealth of knowledge in their field is dangerous leap of faith — especially when it comes to things like car safety.
Understanding research includes being familiar with the scientific method, and that includes the following:
- How to set up a hypothesis
- How to sample subjects from a population of people
- How to assign an independent variable (the variable/condition we manipulate in a study), and how to measure a dependent variable (the test used to assess how the groups differed).
- How to control for both internal and external threats to the validity of a study (so that the findings of the study represent what was being examined, and not other unintended factors), and
- How to properly understand the limits of a study, as well as how the results of the study should be applied and interpreted
If you do not have training in research (including a thorough understanding of the points made above), then it is important to acknowledge that “doing your own research” likely has some shortcomings. People who conduct and study research often spend their entire careers engaged in their work, and their credibility should be viewed as far more thorough than someone you know who watched YouTube and/or used Google to find an answer.
Doing your own research may be fine for selecting a restaurant, buying a new suit, or choosing a new pet. In these examples Google may be all that you need and will provide you ample information in order to make an informed decision. On the other hand, doing your own research will never be the equivalent to a professional who understands empirical research related to the issue you are learning about. When it comes to your health, it is far better to trust scientists and physicians rather than a friend who knows a friend who found some obscure webpage that proclaims to know more than the experts.