Whether the topic is COVID-19, global politics or the upcoming Gotion plant, many people in the digital age believe they’ve become experts through alternative independent research.
I believe that our current easy access to information is a fantastic thing. The average person has the ability to inform themselves on anything at any time. However, this has made some dissenters too confident.
My experience in professional research is limited. While working on my history minor, I wrote up to three research papers per semester. For the past year, I have worked on a project studying data analysis in genocide with other Ferris faculty, staff and students.
As a history scholar and journalist, I have great respect for research and expertise.
I believe that the word research should be reserved for gathering information through fieldwork or reputable scholarly sources such as academic journals.
The summer of 2020 was the first time I saw groups of people with the audacity to counter professional research from experts in favor of their own ideas, largely spread through social media.
It was jarring to hear people say they did their own “research” on face masks and vaccines which proved their inefficacy.
I never understood how they could believe they found groundbreaking information that the entire world’s scientists had missed.
There is mass distrust in science, media and institutions that theoretically exist to inform and educate the public. This has pushed people to the dark corners of internet misinformation.
A poll conducted by Ipsos this year showed that only 58% of those surveyed had a “fair amount” or a “great deal” of trust in the Food and Drug Administration.
A separate study led by researchers at Harvard University showed that only 37% of those surveyed trust the Centers for Disease Control.
“However, public trust in government and other major institutions across US society has been declining for decades, and the pandemic has raised concerns about trust in public health agencies in particular,” the researchers wrote. “Opportunities for misinformation to take root in the current social and traditional media environments raise concerns that trust will decline further.”
Nationwide mistrust in these institutions is dangerous. Beyond the pandemic, people feel comfortable disregarding experts’ findings in other hot-button areas such as climate change and abortion.
This year, for the first time in American history, a court attempted to invalidate the approval of a drug by the FDA.
Appointed by Donald Trump, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk suspended the approval of the abortion medication mifepristone. Kacsmaryk has no scientific background whatsoever.
When people hear news they don’t like from the CDC, the FDA or major media outlets, they too often feel emboldened enough to believe they can outsmart the experts.
For the first time in my years at Ferris, I now see the people of Big Rapids politically organizing. Unfortunately, the anti-Gotion cause has turned into a misinformation landmine. Even with valid criticisms to be made about local bureaucracy and environmental impact, the debate often dissolves into claims of national security threats traceable to social media posts.
Research doesn’t happen on Facebook. It happens in a lab, a library or out in the real world.