“In this world saturated with information, it is critical that we question as much as we can.”
When I graduated from the Diploma Programme (DP) in 2009, I was convinced it was going to positively affect my undergraduate studies, and it did. But through my academic career, I’ve realized it had a deeper impact on how my brain is wired to process information from the world. Looking back (11 years ago, wow!) on how we inquired, how we designed our own research, how we found sources of information (mostly in libraries!) … I see now that we were almost fully trained investigators. This high level of abstraction permitted us to not only perform mathematical analysis to real-world problems but also to apply logical arguments to discussions. Philosophical logic is the application of analytic structure to philosophical problems, such as argumentation. I remember our theory of knowledge (TOK) classes on this, extracting logical statements from verbal communication to demonstrate if the arguments used were valid. Logic is, of course, applied to research when we design ways to control for variables or extract key information from text and incorporate it into your previous concepts’ network. Our abstraction abilities as scientists grow over the years by actively conducting research and learning from our mistakes. Doesn’t this sound complex? No one expects a layperson to think as a scientist, right?
Exactly, because critical thinking is not innate. We, as humans, can do it, but we need to be trained. What we call, “common sense”, most of the times is not that common if it’s not our area of expertise, or we haven’t had any experience in that topic. Evolution has shaped our genes towards being emotionally driven, having confirmation bias (among others) and widely generalizing what we experience, and not for critical thinking. Nowadays, it’s easier to use our biases to expand false information for particular/states/company interests. Our attention is monetized in many different ways. For example, I have very poor knowledge of CGI, therefore I don’t know what the state-of-the-art technology can do. When I receive a video of a cat jumping from the Empire State Building and landing safely, my first reaction is, “Wow! What a supercat!” This is likely because: first, I’ve been amazed (emotion) and second, I love cats and think they are the greatest creature on earth (bias). But then I stop and think: “Humm … that seems kind of impossible … Could it be fake? … Can you achieve that with visual effects? … Let me search about it”. This is my take-away message for you: the only thing you need to do is, “stop & think”. Even if you don’t have the tools to question the fact/video/image/research paper, other people you trust do.
“You have to be prepared for uncertainty, there are many things that we still don’t know (and that’s why we keep researching)”
How do you find a trustworthy source? Coming back to my philosophy logics class, when a scientist talks in the news and says, “the Earth is not flat,” that is what is called an argument from authority. Here, you don’t have the facts backing up the statement, but you assume it’s true because it comes from an expert. And in today’s world, it’s something essential. I cannot spend every hour of my day studying other disciplines to prove every single fact I hear, there’s too much accumulated culture from the previous generations and too many technologies surrounding us. But I can call my physicist friend Marcos or check Neil deGrasse Tyson’s twitter posts about it or even go to the American Physics Society and read their statement on the topic, or do all of this and find out what the consensus is to come up with my opinion based on different perspectives.
Searching for consensus is particularly important with arguments from authority, because they are not always true (we are all humans and can be wrong). Firstly, I would recommend finding an expert around you who you like (this is very important), is honest and that you trust (meaning that they won’t prioritize their own interests). Don’t be scared to ask the experts! We really love talking about what we know. Moreover, what we love even more is to research, contrast/ compare facts and find truth. We’re also trained to admit what we don’t know and find someone else to help you. For example, my family doesn’t ask me as much as I would like about science news or their health issues. When they do, I like being able to do something useful for them. Because the applicability of my research is in the longer term, outreach is a way of increasing my impact in the world and giving back to the taxpayers who contributed to my training and salary.
Ok, I know sometimes you don’t know an expert, or you don’t get an immediate answer, or you got your DP like me and love learning by yourself. So, let’s find out together how you can get closer to the truth in the medical sciences. First, I have to say that I understand how you feel if you’re not in my area because I did the IB extended essay on a history topic and didn’t know how to even start about finding sources. As an example to show you some tips, when I was 16 years old in my scout troop, we had a small project about environmental health. Because of the quick expansion of Wi-Fi routers, cell phones and TV at that time, we wanted to know if non-ionizing radiation (radio wavelengths, microwaves) influenced human health. We were biased towards, “yes, it has!” because there was too much misinformation. After checking several sources and reading a long World Health Organization (WHO) report the answer was, “no, it’s not proved to our capacities that it has (apart from tissue heating)”. My first disclaimer is that you have to be prepared for uncertainty, there are many things that we still don’t know (and that’s why we keep researching).
“Don’t be scared to ask the experts!”
If your question is about health, like mine at that time, my advice is to go to the United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS) website and Mayo Clinic (also in different languages) for clear and intuitive information. If you want to dig deeper, I would go to the WHO. There are also newspapers and blogs that do an excellent job at curating the information for you. Find their funding sources to see if they have a conflict. In general, journalistic projects funded by subscriptions have more freedom to publish what they want: I usually read The Guardian, eldiario.es, Maldita, The New York Times, National Public Radio. If you want the latest research findings, go to PubMed, where you can find reviews of the topic (I recommend reading these first) and research articles. Reading scientific articles is hard, but being able to assess if the conclusions are sustained is even harder. There are a few more things you can do: google the journal (is it recognized?) and check the team funding sources (if they’re testing the properties of Kiwi to cure neurodegenerative diseases, is a Kiwi company funding them?) and conflict of interest sections (are they in the board of pharmaceutical companies extracting Kiwi compounds?), see what the experts are saying about it on twitter, etc.
In this world saturated with information, it is critical that we question as much as we can. So, QUESTION ME, find other blogs and find experts that give advice on how to differentiate truth from fake news! Come on … do it, I won’t get offended, on the contrary I would be getting to do what I love.
Marina Martinez-Garcia is a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School. She earned her BSc in Biology and MSc in Genetics and Cellular Biology at Complutense University of Madrid (Spain) and PhD in Biosciences at the University of Birmingham (UK). She investigates the regulation of chromosome dynamics during meiosis, the cellular division that produces sperm and egg critical for fertility. She currently lives in Boston where she enjoys its theatre and music scene.
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