Sep 13 2010

“I’ve done my own research” and “Common Sense” – when to ignore someone

In my random flittings about the internet, I come across many discussion forums. The great downside of giving everyone the tool to voice their opinion, is that we’ve allowed every tool to voice their opinion. Without wanting to sound like too much of a snob, there is a meaningful connection between formal education and the value of your contribution to a discussion. To forestall the predictable rejoinder (I would make it myself at this point), I am not saying that only people with PhDs are worthwhile; nor am I saying that someone with a PhD is necessarily worth listening to. What I am saying is that during the process of formal education, particularly philosophy and law, one learns the rhetorical tools required to construct a coherent and logical argument (if you have a degree in philosophy or law and don’t know what I’m talking about, go the hell back to your school and demand a refund).

As a side-effect, it becomes easier to recognize those arguments that are spurious and based on emotive “reasoning” rather than evidence or logic-based induction/deduction (again, if you don’t know the difference, go take a philosophy course, or get some tutoring). In a post that now seems ancient, I described some of the tools commonly used by the forces of stupid that try to substitute for logic. When you’re unfamiliar with common logical fallacies, you’re more likely to be persuaded by them – it’s like not knowing which berries in the forest are poisonous.

However, there are two that I’ve seen cropping up that start my eyes a’rolling.

1. “I’ve done my own research on this, and…”

I don’t know who finds this argument persuasive, but it immediately turns me off ever listening to that person. The internet has given us many wonderful things, but many of those things have a dark side. For example, we have unprecedented access to information – anyone with an internet connection has immediate access to the collected knowledge of the human species in ways that were barely even imaginable when I was a kid. I remember having a World Book encyclopedia set in my elementary school library. Someone had stolen, or lost, or destroyed, the S section. As a result, I didn’t know what a salamander was until I turned 21 (note: this story is almost entirely fabricated). The point is that we are no longer reliant on schools to give us knowledge or facts – it’s all available at our fingertips.

The downside of that is, of course, that not all facts are created equal. Cruise any creationist or white supremacist or climate change “skeptic” web forum and you’ll find lots of things that people call facts. The challenge is in discerning between things that are factual, things that are plausible, and things that are simply nonsense or fabrication. This is the realm of critical thinking, a skill which I find is in all-too-short supply.

So when someone tells me that they’ve “done their own research”, that is not persuasive to me at all. Actual research requires training in certain methodologies, which most people don’t have. Further, you have to be trained in the right methodology. Being trained in the scientific method, for instance, gives me some confidence that I can read and critically analyze a scientific study. None of that makes me qualified to critique someone’s interpretation of history – I’m not a historian. My opinion on matters of history, or philosophy, or even science, based on my own “research” is likely to be incredibly faulty and limited by both my training and my years. This is why the scientific consensus is such a powerful thing, and why anyone who wants to challenge it should come in with buckets of evidence, not simply vague accusations of conspiracy and lots of capital letters.

There’s also a metric assload of biases, heuristics, prejudices and other manner of cognitive problems with someone “doing their own research.” Oftentimes people will have an idea fixed in their head, and go looking for evidence to support it. I know I’ve caught myself doing this before. This isn’t ‘research’, this is confirming your own biases. True research sets up systematic mechanisms to control for and try to eliminate these biases, and it takes time and training to learn how to do this properly.

I’m fine with someone saying “I’ve done my own research…” as long as they’re able to point to it and show me. There’s no excuse besides laziness for demanding that someone believe your opinion if you can’t show your work. Any of the opinions I put up here are subject to the same scrutiny, and if chased down, I’ll either go to my source material or admit that I’m just making stuff up that seems logical. What I won’t do is say “well I’ve looked into this, and these are the facts, and you have to believe me because I say so.” Anyone who does that should be ignored right out of the starting gate.

2. “It’s just common sense that…” or “Common sense dictates that…”

Of all of the stupid arguments I come across, this one has got to be the worst. “Common sense” is the most inaccurately-named concept out there – it’s not common at all, and it’s rarely sensible. Appeals to common sense assume that there is some universal filter through which human beings see the world and is ‘common’. The reality is that depending on your upbringing, your education, your experiences, and your specific training in fields like logic and rhetoric, you build for yourself a pretty thick filter through which you receive information. This is done partially to take some of the workload off of your brain – if you can classify things quickly and easily, it free up resources to do other things (ever been exhausted at the end of a lecture on a topic with which you weren’t familiar?)

Our filters exert a great deal of influence over our thinking. That’s why it’s “common sense” to me that scientific studies are better than a list of patient testimonials – I’ve seen lots of examples in my own life and in other circumstances in which people will misattribute the placebo effect to whatever quack treatment they receive. However, it seems that to many chiropractors, or homeopaths, or reflexologists, and yes even licensed physicians, patient testimonial trumps science. It’s just common sense, right?

Appeals to “common sense” simply say to me “I haven’t bothered to spend any time or effort to think about this, or to look to see if there is any evidence of it, but I believe it anyway, so I’m going to assume you make the same assumptions about the world that I do.” I lived in Ontario during the reign of Premiere Mike Harris, who gutted education spending, closed hospitals, fired nurses, and basically ruined the shit out of social services. It took years for the province to recover, and some things are still in the can to this day. He called his policy “the Common Sense Revolution”, which is why I get chills every time anyone tells me that they wish people would “just use common sense.” I want fewer people to use common sense, and more to use some friggin’ evidence please.

If you don’t have evidence, but you think your position is reasonable, it’s fine to say so. But again, you have to show your work. If you can (like I try to do with all of these Monday thought pieces) walk your audience through your logic, then you’re not using ‘common sense’ any more, you’re using reason. There’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) with doing this. It is a lot more difficult and time-consuming, but you’re more likely to a) convince those who disagree with you, and b) find errors in your own thinking if you do things this way.

So if you’re going to try and convince me that you’ve got answers based on either your “own research” or your “common sense”, try not to be offended or surprised when I laugh, and put on some headphones until you stop making noise out of that hole in your face.

TL/DR: Real research takes training and understanding, and “Common Sense” is neither of those things. There are ways to present an argument persuasively, but invocations of either of those things do not impress me.

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1 ping

  1. 1
    Matt P

    Good piece – I agree with you on both these counts. I googled “done my own research” to get here, because it makes me laugh as well. Do climate change deniers go to the South Pole and do ice core measurements, or launch satellites? Do anti-vaccination activists run drug trials? No, they read bias-confirming websites.

    I’m going to write about this on my blog.

  2. 2

    Thanks, Matt. You should come back next Monday, as I have a follow-up planned.

  1. 3
    “Petty” » My Own Research

    [...] I googled the phrase “done my own research”, and found this excellent post about this very subject. I commented: Good piece – I agree with you on both these counts. I googled [...]

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