Note: I'll be updating the initial entry with additional points over time, as discussions elsewhere on Shiachat help me to flesh out the original arguments.
In this essay I discuss why the theory behind 'Do your own research' (DYOR) does not live up to reality and the negative consequences that this can have for those who follow it.
What I will also do is to examine how the whole notion of informed decision making fits within a broader ideological framework and why some groups of people favour it.
My conclusion will be that in the case of covid, owners of capital whose prosperity depends on commercial economic activity, rely on individuals exercising DYOR and thereby making choices that sustain economic activity but which have poor health outcomes for those individuals.
The popularity of 'do your own research' (DYOR)
This is a phrase that we are increasingly hearing. It sounds good, since it refers to going out and gathering information in order to make informed decisions. Making sense of information and data, drawing inferences from it and then acting upon them are all activities that should be encouraged. But that conclusion misses a broader set of issues. What are those issues? Here is a hint:
In the US, for instance, Republican lawmakers and conservative media have attacked public health officials advising lockdowns while championing unproven drugs as miracle cures.
On the one hand you have public health officials, ostensibly driven by the need to protect the health of the public, who recommend government diktat. On the other hand we have politicians from a political party that favours business challenging these recommendations. In addition the lawmakers recommend alternatives to lockdowns that require consumers to make their own 'informed' choices.
This leads to the ideological context of DYOR.
Do your own research and the wider ideology
The debate between personal liberty and the role of the State is an old one. Here is an extract from John Stuart Mills' essay 'On Liberty' written in 1859:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion.
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.
John Stuart Mill. On Liberty (Kindle Locations 7017-7020). Kindle Edition.
So Mill does recognise the occasional need for the freedom's of individuals to be curtailed, but he places a condition on this - the need to prevent harm to others.
And as we have seen nearly 150 years later the DYOR agenda that is being promoted is very one much one that suggests that covid is not harmful, that (lockdowns and social distancing measures that would affect economic activity) don't reduce the harm and indeed various easily obtainable drugs (that would allow us to carry on as normal) can reduce the harm.
In summary the DYOR promoters seek to diminish the health impact of Covid, because if they were to admit it, the role of the State to interfere with personal liberty would have to be accepted. Instead of the latter the DYOR promoters want people to make their own risk assessments and then act on them as a result of personal choice. However as we'll see later this is not a long term solution.
Why is DYOR promoted?
The reason why some groups in society promote DYOR is because it sounds good in principle, but it does not work in practice. If it did work in practice, the people who promote it would no longer do so! This sounds counter-intuitive, (why should someone promote something that does not work) but there is a logic behind it.
Based on the view of the economist Oliver Williamson ordinary people are notoriously bad at gathering information, analysing it and then making use of it, something he refers to as bounded rationality. This is why people continue to smoke after the link with cancer has been proven and why the cigarette industry is happy to go along with whatever restrictions are placed on it (except for outright bans). This is why firms that sell fatty and sugary foods are happy to place information on their packaging (the more complicated the better) rather than have taxes imposed or even outright bans.
Some politicians and businesses encourage people to 'do their own research' because they know that most of the time people will get it wrong. The same groups support models of behaviour change that say to people you are ultimately free to make informed choices from an array of products and services that vary in terms of how good or bad they are for you.
However the experience over time has been that when faced with such choices people will invariably make poor ones, which injure their health but which are profitable to the promoters.
An illustration of this perspective in action is provided in the following thread on Shiachat. A poster wrote about a medical problem that they were facing and another poster provided a link to a series of YouTube videos that recommended a remedy. However the author of those videos is not a medical doctor and indeed has a commercial angle to their video channel. In response to my hiding those videos I received the following reply:
On 2/11/2022 at 4:15 PM, Guest Zahra said:
Why the censorship though? Allow the video and let the mature adults on this forum make a decision whether they want to take his info or not.
This sums up the thinking that I am referring to above. This is the belief that adults should be free to make up their own minds based on the free flow of information and anything that restricts the latter is bad and counts as 'censorship'. The same view disregards the fact that the information could be biased and delivered by someone whose motivation is not benevolent. This view also disregards the fact that many people will not drill deep enough to find out that it is biased!
What happens when people do their own research?
When anti-vaxxers for example tell others to do their own 'research', they are either being naive or deliberately taking advantage of others. Because what do you research? What papers do you read and do you trust what they have to say?
People tend to read what is understandable to them and for most people that will be the polemic in a blog rather than scientific papers.
Reading the latter requires a certain minimum education and indeed patience and time, that most people do not have. So they end up reading material published by conspiracy theorists which is easy to read, but which glosses over technical issues and may just even be wrong. The following quotation is from a scientist who says that his work has been misused by conspiracy theorists and he explains why:
It may seem contradictory for a scientist to discourage scepticism: after all, the first thing I teach my students is to be critical of data and to think of alternative interpretations. But in this case, it is scepticism built on a foundation of deep theoretical and practical knowledge and an understanding of the field in which they work – something that vaccine critics lack, no matter how knowledgable they may be in other areas.
So why do people fall for the DYOR baloney?
Because it makes them feel powerful. Following a comment below I feel I should clarify what I mean by 'powerful', since it's possible to misconstrue what I mean. My usage of the term is closer to what social psychologists may refer to as 'behavioural control'. This term is used to reflect situations such as for example being able to cook with healthier ingredients because someone has taught you how to do so.
The conspiracy theorists however subvert what is good and noble into something wholly unethical. They encourage people to believe that they have behavioural control by making simple what is complex, by misinforming, using anecdotes where statistics would be more relevant and so on. And the reason for doing this is to make their message easier to understand, more interesting to watch, share and more likely to elicit an emotional reaction.
This is not dissimilar to the recent growth in investing apps, which have drawn the following criticism (emphasis is mine):
Trading apps gamified to make an impulsive flutter more irresistible invite us to consider ourselves authorities on abstract assets.
The above context is wholly different to dealing with a pandemic, but what is common to both is people offering us a false illusion of having control over our destiny.
Having processed YouTube videos people feel that they have done their 'research' and that they can now make an informed choice. The choice making seems more 'rational' and in a cultural and educational environment where we have been brought up to celebrate rationality this seems like a good thing, in and of itself.
So in comparison to following government edicts to wear face masks, the 'own research' crowd watch some videos and consciously choose not to do so on the basis of information that they have gathered. They are therefore exercising behavioural control over their lives in a manner that they could not previously. And when challenged they can cite 'evidence' that supports their position - further enhancing their behavioural control.
The reality is of course, that wearing a mask costs very little in terms of money and behaviour change. There are many benefits to others in addition to any to the wearer. But the anti-maskers are told that wearing a mask is some kind of subjugation to government control. Choosing not to wear a mask because someone tells you that you'll breathe more CO2 as a result, sounds like an informed decision that gives you control over your own life.
God, nihilism and the human condition
This new section was inspired by the following post:
On 10/13/2021 at 3:04 PM, slavelight said:
Who's to decide who's conspiracy theorist and who's not?
At one extreme then, the individual can feel that there is so much in the way of different perspectives, error on all sides etc. that we simply cannot identify what is the right course of healthy behaviour and what is not. In my opinion that reflects a worldview which questions God's benevolence.
In my opinion the theist would always believe that God provides us with the critical faculties that enable us to follow the right course of action. The human condition in my view is one where we have to endeavour to find what that right course of action is - and it takes cognitive effort and it requires us not to give in to emotion or laziness.
And just as the above increasingly become more challenging in a more technologically advanced world, so the tools that we have available to help us increase in their sophistication and effectiveness.
Technology allows us to keep a record of who said what and when. In the case of covid-19 we know who downplayed the seriousness of the virus from the start (likely because of their need to protect their economic interests) and we also know who recommended an abundance of caution because they knew that in the long-run a healthy population will be better off economically. Those people who took the virus seriously encourage mask wearing, social distancing and vaccinating.
That information can be used to follow individuals on social media, who have the medical expertise and benevolence to support your interests. Once you follow a reliable expert you can:
- See who else they follow
- And you can then also follow the health experts they follow
Few if any people are capable of 'doing their own research'. Ultimately it becomes a matter of choosing who you decide to believe. And in that regard it becomes a matter of assessing someone's character, their education, and their track record. People who believe in the concept of taqlid know exactly what the issues are here.
1. See the following blog entry I had made for a further explanation about why people can make poor choices:
2. I am attaching a copy of a paper titled, 'Why is changing health behaviour so difficult', published in the academic journal Public Health. The paper identifies some common mistakes public policy officials make when designing behaviour modification programmes.