In a previous blog post I talked about some of the strange things that happen when facts and ethics get seen as partisan. This week I plan to continue that theme, but with a different example—specifically, looking at the various uses and interpretations of the phrase “do your own research.” It struck me recently in an in-class discussion that I’ve heard this term used on all sides of the partisan divide in political conversations in the US in recent years. It hit me that it is used, in fact, to respond to the idea of expertise in completely opposite ways depending on how someone approaches their partisan identity. So this week’s blog post is unpacking just a few of the ways I see this break down across partisan lines.
My Standpoint on This Topic
So as always, I’m approaching this from the viewpoint of a pastor’s kid who grew up in a right-leaning moderate denomination and went on to become a communication scholar studying and teaching about stress, trauma, and conflict communication.
As I mentioned in the last piece, teaching in a non-partisan classroom in recent years has been fascinating, especially alongside viewing and participating in discussions that tend to fall along more overtly partisan lines at AS.
As a result of these different frames of reference, I’ve noticed a few ways people on various sides of the aisle have been using and reacting to the phrase “do your own research” lately. These contexts and interpretations, perhaps not surprisingly, use the phrase to react VERY differently to the idea of expertise.
Yeah, Let’s Talk about the Rhetoric of Conspiracy
This brings up another area I’ve studied before—which is to say, I took a whole grad class on the rhetoric of conspiracy. I previously wrote a series on the rhetoric of conspiracy starting here, including a whole subseries using information about William Cooper, who popularized the term “sheeple,” starting here.
This line of things is highly relevant because the rightwing approach to the phrase “do your own research” is one that has an awful lot of overlap with the conspiracy community’s view of expertise.
Fear of the “Establishment” in ALL Things
In short, the right-wing approach to this phrase shows a strong cynicism about and allergy toward expertise and the “establishment.”
This shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve read about fascism (again, recommending Jason Stanley’s book How Fascism Works as a primer), as authoritarian and fascistic rhetoric is full of language that tries to convince people that their followers should listen only to them and not to any other established forms of expertise. Policies often involve undermining diversity of opinions via educational systems, etc for that reason.
This fits in well with the paranoia about the “deep state” and other forms of expertise that’s often a trope in the conspiracy theory community. In that community, in fact, the people that claim to have the “real knowledge” use their backgrounds working in places like the medical community or in the military, etc. to claim to have knowledge “the establishment doesn’t want you to know.”
When “Do Your Own Research” Means You Trust that Dude on YouTube But Won’t Trust the Textbook
The tricky part of this suspicion that pops up around expertise in these kinds of right-wing environments is that they end up largely using the idea of “do your own research” as a way to trust what they find from such “rogue operatives” through rightwing “news” outlets or areas such as YouTube, etc.
I have seen people influenced by this kind of rhetoric absolutely refuse to trust what’s in textbooks for the very basic kinds of information, insisting on googling everything instead.
This is an insidious kind of thinking that mirrors but does not actually healthily enact critical thinking techniques in a reasonable way.
In short, this first response to “do your own research” isn’t actually about doing one’s own research. Instead, it’s about finding people to tell you things that already align with your predetermined suspicions of existing expertise.
More Thoughtful Requests to “Do Your Own Research”
Again, it’s ironic because the thoughtful people I know, many of which identify as left-wing but not all, use the phrase “do your own research” in very different ways.
These more thoughtful people often use it to encourage people to actually engage in critical thinking about material, both that which comes from official experts and that which contradicts it.
Yes, the encouragement is often to reinforce the idea of expertise, but that idea is one aligned not with an echo chamber, but a system in which a variety of ideas are heard and bounced off one another. And expertise is not seen as a god, but given a reasonable amount of weight.
Case in point: when I wanted to “do my own research” on the pandemic, I started following epidemiologists. When I wanted to “do my own research” on the impacts of racism, I started following Black journalists, authors, and scholars.
When People Want to Be “Taught” in the Comments Section….
In these contexts, and especially in online discussions, people here often tell people to “do their own research” by looking into some body of work that’s been compiled by a combination of stories from people who are impacted by some behavior or policy and experts studying that same kind of thing.
This is especially the case if the “left-wing” person is talking to someone who is insisting on being taught an entire college course in the comment section of a site in order to supposedly be satisfied about the existence of something like racism or misogyny.
Some People Are Willing to Learn—But There Are Good Books for That!
And the problem, of course, is that while sometimes that person genuinely is willing to learn, they often are not. And when they ARE willing to learn, giving them a reading list of good books on the subject—either by academic, journalistic, or experiential experts or some combination—is a much better use of everyone’s time than endlessly exchanging information in the comment section.
And then, of course, there’s always the very likely possibility that the person is NOT engaging in the discussion in good faith—but would only agree with perspectives if you found something in their favored sources to help them understand.
Which is challenging when there is often good reason to have strong opposition to these types of anti-expertise sources, many of which engage in the types of misinformation and disinformation I just described.
Right-wing Views of “Doing Your Own Research” as a Fun-House Mirror of Critical Thinking
At any rate, I don’t want to make this too long, but I just wanted to say that I think it’s important that we understand that the conspiracy-based perspective is a sort of fun-house mirror of actual critical thinking-based approaches to the idea of doing one’s own research.
Let’s Take Back The Phrase, Friends!
In a healthy perspective, as with everyone having the right to one’s own opinions, I think it’s important to reclaim the idea of “doing one’s own research” as an important one—while also using it to encourage genuine critical thinking and diversity of opinions. At the same time, I think it’s very important to decry misinformation and to encourage respect for expertise without pretending that experts know everything.
Wait, So Fear of Expertise Means Fear of…Interdependence???? Oooh….
The funny thing to me is that all the experts I know know perfectly well that they don’t know everything. In fact, the more specialized your knowledge gets, the more aware you become realizing that no one can be an expert on everything.
We need others who are good at and aware of other types of knowledge to get around in this world. That’s just how it is.
Here’s a big irony of right-wing hot takes on “doing their own research”—a lot of times, fear of expertise is just another form of fear of interdependence on other people who know stuff.
It also seems to stem from a fear of one’s own ignorance–in short, a fear of intellectual humility.
I could go on about this for awhile, but I’ll stop here for today.
What We Can Do Toward a Healthier World
May we refuse to believe right-wing claims that the two sides are the same on this topic. And may we continue to advocate for healthy critical thinking wherever we can. May we keep continuing to encourage people to “do their own research” by reasonably reading what they can from a variety of expert sources with a diversity of opinions.
And since there are school board elections coming up this week in many areas, please please please educate yourselves on who’s running and vote locally where you’re able, friends! Please keep reading banned books as well. These battles matter tremendously.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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