'Do Your Own Research': Was It Dangerous Advice During the Pandemic?

By   |  August 17, 2023

By Cara Murez HealthDay Reporter  |  Copyright © 2022 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

THURSDAY, Aug. 17, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- The idea of “doing your own research” didn’t begin with the pandemic, but new research suggests that those who follow that ideology have been more likely to believe COVID misinformation.

“We had heard the phrase a lot before,” prior to the pandemic, said researcher Sedona Chinn, a professor of life sciences communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It was “coming from a lot of online, anti-vaccine rhetoric,” she added.

The researchers knew people who were willing to “occasionally do weird, unproven stuff, typically around health,” Chinn said. “It’s not like they reject doctors and medical expertise, but they think their opinion can be equally valid if they do their own research.”

Then it was 2020, and the pandemic arrived.

The phrase’s use grew quickly, Chinn said, “popularized by Q-Anon and other conspiratorial groups, in more extreme and more dangerous ways. Now, we’re following what seem more like connections to certain political views than calls for more and better scientific research.”

In the new study, the researchers found that people who were supportive of the phrase “doing your own research” were more likely to be distrustful of scientists. They were also more likely to believe misinformation about COVID-19.

Even when the researchers controlled for the type of media those who liked to do their own research consume, those among the 1,000 survey respondents grew more distrustful and more ill-informed even as news of successful vaccine trials emerged.

“We measured their trust in science and COVID beliefs in December 2020 and again in March 2021,” Chinn said. “We wouldn’t normally expect this to change too much, especially over such a brief period. But for people who felt positively about ‘doing your own research,’ we did see that their distrust in scientific institutions and misperceptions about the pandemic grew.”

The findings were published recently in the Harvard Kennedy School's journal Misinformation Review.

It can be excellent advice, in general, to tell someone to do their own research, Chinn said.

“There’s a lot of research showing that people who do more information-seeking about politics are more civically engaged and people who do more information seeking about their health conditions have better treatment outcomes,” she said. “So, it is objectively good to do your own research.”

Yet the phrase’s history has not always been without questions.

It initially gained popularity as a slogan of Milton William Cooper, who in the 1990s wrote a book and hosted a radio show about his theories of a vast global conspiracy tying together UFOs, the Kennedy assassination and the AIDS epidemic.

“DYOR [do your own research] messages can promote skepticism in the guise of being informed and independent,” Chinn said. “[People believe] you should ‘do your own research’ because maybe you can’t trust what they’re telling you. And so, you need some alternative research or alternative information to balance out [what you believe are] potentially untrustworthy institutional sources of knowledge.”

Chinn now plans to analyze the content of social media posts that call for readers to “do your own research,” examining whether people who support this idea actually do engage in their own research and studying how that suggestion may affect people’s beliefs and behavior.

“As we dig further, we’re finding that ‘do your own research’ is really not associated with much information-seeking,” Chinn said in a university news release. “And it begins to look more like an expression of an anti-establishment world view than an interest in finding more or better evidence on any given topic.”

More information

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has more on COVID misinformation.

SOURCE: University of Wisconsin-Madison, news release, Aug. 15, 2023