A skill many think they have yet few possess.
It makes my heart sink each time I see a status or comment on social media that states or implies that research consists only of Google and YouTube. It is frustrating seeing people repeatedly take as fact that which has been proven false.
I am guilty of thinking I know more than I do and have been arrogant when questioned. I would like to think that because my interest is in Epistemology; I have a higher claim to knowledge in certain things. I assume that because I am autistic, it gives me an epistemic advantage in this area of enquiry. Maybe I am right in this and it follows that although I have a claim to knowledge – it is indeed biased due to my standpoint.
I am currently studying for a Master of Research in Human Sciences. I feel this enables some kind of authority to speak out about research. My social position within society places me in a unique position – bridging the gap between elitist academia and those who do not know anyone with a PhD.
Before I first attended University in 2009 I thought myself a researcher; I spent hours reading about whatever caught my curiosity. Mixed Face: A Quest for Answers details this process and I can now look back and say that it had its place as a starting point – but no credible facts emerged other than the exploration of possibility. Ontological reality is another issue.
What concerns me about the belief of a possibility as an ontological fact is the sheer rigidity that people stick to these beliefs. No logical explanation can sway their opinions thus they resist all attempts to demonstrate against the fallacy. They ‘research’ their beliefs, find others who agree and state that this is their proof. They seek justification amongst only likeminded peers and reject any beliefs counter to it– even if there is scientific proof.
Research in science is a rigorous process involving observation, data generation, hypothesis testing and experimentation through definable methodologies which take full consideration of ethical concerns. Finally, after the laborious process of gathering facts to prove and understand a phenomenon, the written report is submitted to journals for Peer Review. This is the most important aspect of science of any flavour – Research is only published if it passes a panel of equally educated and experienced researchers. Even after it is published; it is scrutinised by the scientific community and reproduced by other teams in order to verify the claim to knowledge.
This is what makes science a joint enterprise, one that is not dependent on one author alone. Anyone can publish and make YouTube videos – not everyone has what it takes to be a scientific researcher. I am relatively undecided whether I believe that I have what it takes given the disadvantages I face due to my social status. Regardless of this, I am enjoying the course I am on and have achieved Distinction in the philosophy module.
This experience with academic research has opened my eyes to the fallacy of believing that what I previously engaged in was research. But perhaps that is a little too harsh; maybe scientific research is simply distinguishable from the other type of research that people generally believe qualifies. This could be the reason why the term Post-Truth applies to this modern era of social media.
As someone who would rather admit that they are wrong in a belief than accept a false belief – I find the idea that people will stick to untrue beliefs hardly surprising given the fact that most scientific literature exists behind a paywall. If there is anyone to blame for the public not having access to the knowledge that is available; blame the elite who hoard their wealth – blame the academic institutions that can be elitist. Can the people really be at fault for false beliefs if they were never given the tools to find out the truth for themselves?
This is why philosophy is so important for everyone regardless of social status. It provides the tools to critically analyse information and to form strong beliefs that are fluid and mutable depending upon what can be proven. It encourages debate on opposing opinions and the awareness of possibilities with the ultimate goal of truth and knowledge acquisition – not of being right.
I am not a philosopher because I have studied Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant; or because my undergraduate dissertation was on Social Epistemology – I am a philosopher because that is the way I learnt to think before I even knew what the word meant. This way of thinking could have arisen because I am autistic, or it could just be a coping mechanism I was fortunate enough to find.
I shall demonstrate my argument with an active example – ‘vaccines cause autism.’
Many otherwise rationally minded people believe in this. You will find that they often have friends who agree and collectively quote the name: “Dr Andrew Wakefield” a disgraced scientist who falsified his results, claimed erroneous conclusions that were not supported by the data, published without patient consent and whose work has been proven false by many separate teams throughout the world. This does not seem to matter to those who believe that ‘vaccines cause autism’ and in their opinion, having autism is worse than having measles, mumps and rubella.
Vaccines do not cause autism because there is no evidence that they do.
Some of these believers know and love someone who has autism and claim that the condition needs to be prevented and cured. You will notice that not one of these people have the condition themselves. That is not to say that there are no autistic people who wish for a cure (this is a debate for another day), it is simply an observation that those who believe that vaccines cause autism generally withhold vaccines from their children whether they are autistic or not thus placing a judgement on the value of autistic lives.
When people ‘research’ autism through Google and YouTube all they are doing is searching for the information that reinforces their own beliefs. When they ask for advice from their friends on social media, all they are doing is asking for confirmation that they are right. The most dangerous aspect of this is that some of them self-diagnose their children, or themselves, then jump on the bandwagon of conspiracy without having the necessary skill to understand the damage they are doing to societal perceptions of autism.
I was very careful not to discuss or mention anything on social media about autism before my diagnosis. I felt that it would be disrespectful to those who have the condition because secondary experience is inferior to first-hand experience. Even a parent of a child with Autism will only have secondary experience unless they have the condition too.
To be clear – you certainly can be autistic without a diagnosis – the diagnosis obviously does not give you the condition but it gives you the authority to state that you are autistic and have that epistemic claim. If you do not have a diagnosis, keep it private until you do because there is always the chance that you are wrong.
Words can indeed have different meanings to different people. This is true in the case of ‘research’ however when this word is used to justify weak beliefs it loses its higher value.
Try and stand face to face with an academic who has studied autism for decades and tell them why you believe that vaccines cause autism.
Tell them you “googled it” and pay attention to their response.