When Someone has "Done Their Research" That Doesn't Make Them An Expert!

What is most frustrating for me is people who do “research.” Because understanding scientific research is really fucking hard. Go ask grad students if you don’t believe me. People think doing the research means people are going to crack open carefully curated, well written, well edited glossy textbooks with pretty photos and helpful diagrams and colorful text. And all the important parts are bolded or italicized to make it easy to understand. That’s not what scientific papers look like. That’s not what science looks like.

Scientific Papers Are Total Gibberish

The vast majority of scientific papers are total gibberish to even most scientists with a PhD. You need to have an entire college education in the field, years of experience in the subfield, and ideally, months of experience with the specific topic of the paper to even begin to understand what a paper is talking about.

Yes it’s easier for certain sciences are harder for others; for example, many more people can read a psychology or sociology paper and get the gist than can read a theoretical physics or pharmaceuticals paper. Because more people have a laymen’s understanding of clinical depression or systematic poverty than they do of quantum physics or drug interactions. They can even read about how to write a song with no musical talent and grasp the concept. However, it still takes a lot of education and a lot of practice to ACTUALLY be able to do the scientific research.

Let’s not blame people for trying to do the research and misinterpreting the findings, because it’s not exactly easy to do. Even when it IS your field, and it IS your topic, most of those papers are poorly written and badly edited anyway. On top of that they’re mind-numbingly boring to boot. It’s honestly pretty challenging to ready primary sources in science.

The real problem is when people are misinterpreting secondary and tertiary sources; aka scientific journalism and journalism about science (two different things). Usually, getting the info in a secondary source wrong is the reader’s fault. Usually, getting the info from a tertiary source wrong is the writer’s fault.

Scientific Journalism and Journalism About Science

Here’s a primary source that no non-scientist should reasonably be expected to understand.

“UV-LED disinfection of Coronavirus: Wavelength effect”, from the “Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology”: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1011134420304942?via%3Dihub

UV light-emitting diodes are an emerging technology and a UV source for pathogen inactivation, however low UV-LED wavelengths are costly and have low fluence rate. Our results suggest that the sensitivity of human Coronavirus (HCoV-OC43 used as SARS-CoV-2 surrogate) was wavelength dependent with 267 nm ~ 279 nm > 286 nm > 297 nm. Other viruses showed similar results, suggesting UV LED with peak emission at ~286 nm could serve as an effective tool in the fight against human Coronaviruses.

If you don’t have a PhD in chemistry or biology, AND you don’t specialize in photochem/photobio concentration, that paper is going to be pretty damn hard to read. And that’s okay. The average person isn’t meant to read that. That’s a primary source.

Here’s the secondary source:

“LED lights found to kill coronavirus: Global first in fight against COVID-19”: https://aftau.org/news_item/led-lights-found-to-kill-coronavirus-global-first-in-fight-against-covid-19/

The researchers tested the optimal wavelength for killing the coronavirus and found that a length of 285 nanometers (nm) was almost as efficient in disinfecting the virus as a wavelength of 265 nm, requiring less than half a minute to destroy more than 99.9% of the coronaviruses. This result is significant because the cost of 285 nm LED bulbs is much lower than that of 265 nm bulbs, and the former are also more readily available.

That’s from the publishing department of Tel Aviv University, the institution that the scientists who wrote the paper are from. The point of this secondary source is to publicize the findings of the scientists to the non-scientific community; to get the news out. However, this can still be a little hard to read. Something a little more friendly than this might be: “scientific journalism”, like this piece:

Scientific journalism:

“Study reveals UV LED lights effectively kill a human coronavirus “: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/study-reveals-uv-led-lights-effectively-kill-the-human-coronavirus#Why-did-they-use-a-surrogate-virus?

In a recent study, researchers found that UV light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can quickly and effectively kill the human coronavirus HCoV-OC43. If future research finds that they are also effective against SARS-CoV-2, this technology could be an inexpensive way to disinfect surfaces, ventilation systems, and water systems in hospitals and industrial settings.

Although this is “scientific journalism” that expects a professional audience and still uses a lot of jargon and a high reading level, it should actually be understandable to a dedicated layman reader. If you put in the thinking time to understand it, you SHOULD be able to understand it. The writer isn’t a scientist, but it WAS fact checked by a scientist. And to their credit, the writer is a good writer. If you misinterpret it at this stage, it’s probably because you got impatient or lazy, or you have a really low reading level/know next to nothing about the topic. If that’s the case, you’re not supposed to read secondary sources, you’re supposed to read tertiary sources, which is one level lower.

Tertiary sources:

“Ultraviolet LED lights kill 99.9 per cent of coronavirus pathogens in just 30 seconds and could sterilise rooms cheaply via air conditioning systems”: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-9055147/Ultraviolet-LED-lights-kill-coronavirus.html

LED lights that throw out ultraviolet light can kill coronaviruses and could be incorporated into air conditioning systems to sterilize rooms, scientists say. 

Journalism About Science

This is now what we call “journalism about science”. No scientists are involved in the writing of this article. They aren’t fact checkers either(just like this article you are reading). This is just journalists, who probably read the university publishing department piece, or the Medical News Today article, and wrote up their own version. This is the lowest form of “doing the research” and what most people mean when they said they “did their research”. They found a Daily Mail or New York Post article about it in the paper or online. Although the piece is written as simply as possible so that the reader can understand, there’s a significant danger of the writer themselves not actually understanding the science behind the paper they’re referring to.

After all, they didn’t write it (the scientist themselves). They’re not the university publishing department, which employs the scientist team at the same institution and has a vested interest in getting the facts right. And they’re not the scientific journalist that may not be a scientist themselves but has colleagues who work on staff with them available to fact check. Nope, this is just a plain old Daily Mail staff writer who decided to write about this, and it shows. If someone misinterprets THIS level, it’s often actually the writers fault. Because most writers at this level aren’t experts and often make mistakes.

Fake Internet Scientists

And the absolute worst, lowest form of “doing the research” is skipping the paper, the publisher, the scientific journalism AND the journalism about science altogether, and going straight to an internet comments section or Facebook posts.

Unfortunately, too many people mean THIS when they say “they did the research”. And that’s the real problem. People thinking they are experts after reading comments and articles like the one you are reading right now.

It is very, very normal and totally okay for the average person to read the original research paper all this was based on, and have no idea what it says. That’s fine. You kind of need a PhD (or to be a very promising PhD candidate) to understand it. Secondary sources, onus is more on the reader, but that audience is usually journalists and doctors and business professionals anyway who ostensibly SHOULD have the skillset to understand. Tertiary is what you’re expected to be able to read, and more often than not, it’s the writer’s fault.

And the real problem is, in this day and age, people don’t even read the Daily Mail (garbage newspaper, but that’s a different story) article about it, they read internet comments. And guess what? That isn’t research anymore. You can’t even misinterpret it at that point because you’re so for detached from the source it’s basically become a game of telephone. It’s like the scientist originally said “I love Hannah” and on the other end comes out “rye dove banana”.