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You're Not Doing Research

Valhalla Weekly - Security, Software, and All Things Research
Valhalla Weekly - Security, Software, and All Things Research
Research is a phrase that has been bastardized to meaninglessness recently. Let’s talk about it.

Research Wrap-Up
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You're Not Doing Research
Ours is the Era of the Researcher.
Everybody and their brother is a researcher. They research the vaccine more than the world’s top doctors. They are in one week an international relations expert specializing in Russia, a rocket scientist with expertise in reusable rocket design, a world-renowned ethicist waxing on about moral relativity and a parenting expert with a keen eye for other parents’ mistakes. If you press them on their expertise in any of these domains, they will all tell you more or less the same thing.
I’ve done my research
Well, have they, then? Where are the sources they cite? Where is the peer review? How long did their rigorous assignment take them? To discern their bias, who funded and supported the research?
I’m not a gatekeeper. I believe in the free access to information, to extents that many would find extreme. It is actually for this very reason that I’m even writing this newsletter: we have access to an unreal amount of information. Petabytes of new or re-structured information are uploaded to the internet every day, much of it publicly accessible. There are hoards of wonderful people keeping Wikipedia, perhaps the most impressive collection of free, organized and catalogued information ever created, up to date and accurate completely for free. YouTube has several undergraduate degrees worth of free information available from a multitude of incredibly trustworthy sources, from peer-reviewed journals to academic bodies like Harvard and MIT. Some of the best thinkers of our time frequently post free lectures online to be publicly consumed, and a wealth of information is available on top of all of this for those that are willing to pay for it.
Why, then, do I say you have not done your research?
As a rule of thumb, I assume anyone that has done their research likely never has to use the sentence “well I’ve done my research.” Their work speaks for itself, and if they have to offer defense of their research, they will do it based on its merits, rather than a general “trust me, I’m an expert.” More generally, experts rarely have to fall back upon their own expertise.
Furthermore, when pressed, most would-be researchers have not done anything that resembles research. They read a blog once, didn’t question its origins or its source materials, didn’t verify or even experiment with its premise, and now they are standing before you, insisting upon the veracity of their “research.” Generally speaking, they don’t have their own data, and they fairly rarely refer to data at all. When they do, it is data they unquestionably trust. And there is a reason why.
source: newslit.org
source: newslit.org
Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is one of the more dangerous biases lying coiled deep in the human psyche. I am of the opinion (read: I haven’t done any quantitative research on this, so take it with a grain of salt) that confirmation bias is one of the larger driving forces in the prevalent polarization in our society.
Confirmation bias is a bias that essentially reinforces itself in a constant, damaging positive feedback loop. It causes us to look at a new piece of information or data, run it through a very thin filter of “does this jive with what I already know or believe?” and, if so, it accepts the new information as fact with very little else required to support it. If I were an avid flat earther and saw some evidence of humanity’s inability to fall off the edge of the world because of some government-built transparent dome over the world, chances are, I’m going to trust that information without doing any reading into the complex leaps and bounds one has to make to believe in that nonsense.
If I’m a Republican who believes that the 2020 US Presidential Election was stolen, upon seeing a Facebook post falsely claiming that Antifa started the January 6th riot to discredit the right, I’m not just going to give it a like, I’m going to share it far and wide. I won’t likely even click the link: that’s why Twitter gives you a chance to read a story before you retweet it.
“I did my research” is the thin veneer of legitimacy that would-be researchers paint over the foundational truth: they believe it is true because they want it to be true. It matches the reality that they have constructed around themselves. People don’t like their foundational reality to be shaken: they don’t like to be found to be the bad guy, they don’t like to feel wrong or confronted and they really don’t like to be told they didn’t actually do their research. Their natural human reaction, therefore, is to construct some level of expertise or experience in the area in order to feign intelligence and legitimacy.
Okay, then how do we fight it?
Truly, this is a plague upon public and private discourse. It has ruined many a conversation of mine when I find someone backed into a corner feeling attacked when I ask them for their sources and data on a fact they blurted out into the air.
What I will ask you to do, though, before you begin confronting people, is to start with yourself. Go back to the top of this newsletter and read it all again, but every time you find yourself thinking about this or that goofball, substitute yourself.
We are all guilty of not doing our research.
I am, you are, we all are. We have all accidentally (or even purposefully) published or shared mis-/disinformation. In this information ecosystem, it’s truly hard not to. So, instead of getting all confrontational with your friendly neighborhood flat earther, confront yourself. Admit the times you have let confirmation bias get in the way of deeper investigation. Introspect and observe the biases that you have that may make you prone to weakness.
Next, change your approach to consuming and sharing misinformation. Become more confrontational to information itself! If you see a news title that seems sensational, confront it by assuming the opposite sentiment or by approaching it as if it is wrong or dishonest. Frankly, if you assume every single thing you read online is wrong, lacking nuance or biased, you’ll be right most of the time.
Go and actually do your own research. Are you passionate about gun control? Do you hold a political belief that you find yourself constantly defending? Are you curious about the new fad diet your friend is trying? Are you a skeptic of religion? Go and dive in! Any one of those topics has more freely available information pertaining to it online than you could possibly read in three lifetimes. Go dive in to a ton of different sources, with different perspectives and experiences about the topic you’re interested in. Write about it, whether publicly or privately, form hypotheses that you test and destroy. Even if you don’t “win” your next Twitter debate, you will be stronger and smarter from the experience of actually researching.
Now, after all of your introspection, after your approach to consuming and sharing information has changed and after you’ve begun actually researching things, only now should you begin confronting others. Ask them for their sources, but be sure to present your own. Gather meaningful, trustworthy sources to keep handy should the need arise. Don’t be confrontational in an aggressive or rude sense, but approach others with a curious and open-minded manner.
“I hadn’t heard that before, do you have a source for that information?”
“I was under the understanding that they were x, where did you see that they are y?”
“According to This Source, that’s not true. Do you have a resource that proves otherwise?”
These approaches will allow the person to either respond irrationally, with something similar to “I’ve done my research” or some ad hominem attack, or it will force them into doing research themselves. Don’t back them into a corner, meet them where they are.
I don’t ask for much. This isn’t me trying to gatekeep research, it’s me trying to persuade people to do more research. So, the next time you are about to share a post or an article, or the next time you see someone saying they did their research, think back to this post. Think critically, oppose your own biases and discuss your research calmly and clearly.
That's about it!
That’s about it for this week’s Valhalla Research Weekly newsletter. If you enjoyed it, please give it a share on Twitter! If you’re seeing the web version of this newsletter, you can subscribe to get it in your inbox every week here!
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Valhalla Weekly - Security, Software, and All Things Research
Valhalla Weekly - Security, Software, and All Things Research @valhalla_dev

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