“Do the research” is a red flag.
You cannot achieve competence in any field simply by consuming information.
The basic fallacy is more than “unreliable sources of information”. Competence requires implementation. You have to get your hands dirty. And you have to work with colleagues and peers who know more than you and can set you back on course.
Typically to be qualified for research you’d do something like this.
- a few years to master the basics of the field
- another few years applying what you’ve learned in the field
- another few years studying the history and theory of the field. That way you can understand what people research and why.
- a few years researching under the guidance of a supervisor to address a very small and specific problem.
- only to realize that almost all research—even that done by people who have done the work—is either wrong or of extremely marginal interest.
- then you get stuck into it and start to figure out what actually matters; and maybe, just maybe, you can say something that makes a new contribution, or improves understanding in some way. Maybe you can achieve something meaningful!
When people tell you to “do the research”, they are telescoping that they have no idea what research actually entails. They spent a few hours faffing about on the internet and think they know more than people who’ve been doing this professionally their whole adult life. It’s foolish and disrespectful; and it’s disheartening to actual experts. Why study climate science when people care more about the opinions of some drongo on the telly?
Spend a while reading this post… now I completely agree!
That hits the nail on the head. Great post, Bhante
This reminds me a little of an essay I wrote a couple years ago about the accumulation of knowledge vs. what wisdom really is: Wealth, Knowledge, and Wisdom | Dharma Pearls.
Unfortunately, I hear you, Bhante. When I was a professor at university, I had students who just read a few Wikipedia and other things. Few came to me with exactly that sentence or the variation " I had done my research" when I reminded them that I had 22 years of professional experience in the field; they used to ignore that point or point out that using such a point is just arrogance.
Unfortunately, in today world, with mass media and Dr Google, people think they can become experts in something by just reading here and there. It is a severe threat to wisdom, and it has consequences in this world indeed. Thanks for your thought of the day!
Sorry to hear that. I’m somewhat lucky that I work in Physics, and the nature of the subject is that most students are painfully aware that they have not mastered the subject. Of course there is the occasional amateur who is sure that they can prove the Einstein was wrong about relativity, or that they have built a perpetual motion machine.
It’s good pedagogy that modern students are encouraged to search for information themselves, and learn to construct their own understandings. However, this has to be tempered with the caution that what they are doing at high-school, or as an undergraduate, is not professional-level research.
My reflection on this is that perhaps we have a decline in the percentage of people who have mastered some really difficult skill, whether it’s academic research or otherwise (I’m in awe at our tech staff who know how to weld stainless steel to ultra-high-vacuum standard). Once you’ve gained some level of mastery of something difficult, you realise how long it takes, and you have a lot more respect for the knowledge of others…
In addition to the internet, which has made us all ‘experts’ there has also been a devaluing of real experts by corporations with vested interests, politicians and media. The BBC documentary on Climategate made depressing viewing, pointing out that the manufactured ‘scandal’, probably put back climate action for 10 years.
I know nothing about physics except what I learnt in high school, but I sometimes describe samsara as a (the) perpetual motion machine, in that it keeps going until you stop it. Am I just being romantic with my use of language?
Great post Bhante!
One problem is that – as you often point out – language changes and the meanings of words change.
they’re actually doing what elementary school teachers tell their pupils to do and reward them for. What was just “looking something up” fifty or so years ago is now called “research”.
Like MNZ says
But what is “real research” called these days? … Search me, I don’t know! But I sense a slippage in the erosion of standards that brings fake news to mind.
Well, of course there are some almost-perpetual-motion systems, such as the earth orbiting the sun (since there is very little drag), so I guess Samsara has no friction…
But the sort of thing I was thinking of is people using the electricity from the generator of their car to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then using those gases as fuel. Since an internal combustion engine is far from 100% efficient, this violates basic conservation of energy. I.e. it takes more energy to produce the hydrogen and oxygen than you get back by burning it in your engine.
The point is that some rather basic physics principles tell you that it’s not going to work - you don’t have to do complex experiments in this case. In more complex cases you do need careful calculations. For example, if you are trying to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by using solar panels, it’s important to know that solar panels that you are using to generate electricity took less energy to manufacture than the amount of energy they produce!
Thanks Mike. That’s a great answer. Wish I had had you as my teacher at school. I might’ve fared better.
I suppose there’s a distinction between “peer-reviewed research” and just “research”?
Indeed, it’s complicated, which is why the ideas have proven so amenable to hacking.
Consider another usage, “theory”. To the man on the Clapham omnibus, it means “postulation”. But to a scientist it means “well-established theoretical framework”; a postulation is a “hypothesis”. This usage doesn’t confuse scientists, but it is easily leveraged by the “climate change is just a theory” brigade, who are the immediate heirs of the “evolution is just a theory” brigade.
The point here is that, yes, the underlying ideas can be somewhat complicated, and in any complex field nuance and fluidity are required. But the problem is not that it is inherently difficult to identify shallow or meaningless research, or to distinguish between research proper and merely fact-checking. It is that language is deliberately hijacked by bad-faith actors.
In a polite context, whether it be a classroom or conversation or a public discussion, we can articulate nuance and share understanding. But when every discussion is degraded and manipulated, civil discourse becomes impossible. And that, of course, is the point. It’s not to win arguments, it’s to have them.
I think people are just using the word “research” in two different ways: there’s (personal) knowledge acquisition and then there’s (professional) knowledge creation.
The way I’d frame this is in terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy:
Book learning is the foundation of the pyramid, but is only the first step. The problem comes in when people feel entitled (based on facts and concepts) to judge and create (the top of the pyramid) without having first developed their knowledge into the practical, applied, and analytical understandings that that requires.
One can do much research and yet may not find the real truth. We see that over the last 100 plus years in scientific research. What was taken as is was later found to be not so and the evolution of research.
All of this is because in our mind we plant the thing or dhamma and do not realise that mind is the forerunner to all things.
The only correct way is to realise it with experiential wisdom from the research findings and so much from the tabulations of it and try to conclude from that.
Today scientists are talking about climate science, the inter atomic vibrations in carbon dioxide and water molecules as they have three atoms as opposed to Nitrogen. But what they do not know is that the normal vibrations or arising and ceasing as said by Buddha, “Bhikkhus there are these three characteristics in all conditioned, arising seen ceasing seen and what is as is there is change from this to that” That is what we discern in Kayanupassana Meditation, “Sabba Kaya Patisanvedi” discerning the happy feelings, unhappy feelings and neutral feelings that are there in various parts of body at one and the same time and arising and ceasing with great rapidity.
The Global warming today is not because of natural vibrations of atoms (shown by Dr. Donald Glaser in his bubble chamber research) but the impact on that due to the enormous release of hatred from humans. Hatred is a very powerful force of high frequency that change the normal vibrations and we have the Four Great Elements reacting.
This is an idea that is true but dangerous if held wrong. It’s true because even PhDs working at the bleeding edge of progress acknowledge that they have mastered only a tiny wedge of their field. How much less the rest of us!
But it’s dangerous because it is all too easy to pivot and say, “And therefore you must relinquish your freedom, and allow experts to make these important decisions for you.” For one thing, in every field that I’m aware of, actual experts are in constant, vigorous disagreement with each other. More importantly, people have different values and must be allowed to live out those values, even when they are at odds with the advice of the experts.
Experts discuss things they disagree about because it is the things they disagree about that need discussing.
Exactly. And it’s important to distinguish between the edge of knowledge, and knowledge that is much more certain.
Just because certain aspects of quantum mechanics and elementary particle interactions are not well understood doesn’t mean that the knowledge used to build lasers or semiconductor chips is not trustworthy. Or the knowledge used to design bridges, cars, or airplanes…
Similarly, for other areas of science and engineering…
Except software engineering. We have no idea what we’re doing.
But if we speak of consensus rather than correctness, then would it not be true to say that there is a near-universal consensus among software engineers that they do not, in fact, know what they are doing?