Doing Your Own Research (is) for Dummies

A case for leaving the big stuff to the experts

Recently, I was witness to an unhappy commercial starring Spike Lee. In it, pictures of paper currency flash on the screen, dead presidents emblazoned on bills of different denominations - their dour faces drab and motionless, frozen in time. Paper money, we are told, is so yesterday.

But those Benjamins aren’t maligned merely for being old. We are also awoken to the fact that cash is, in fact, “oppression.” Exactly how this is so is not explained, but why dither around with details?

We then witness the smiling faces of people of diverse colors and genders, clips of Tomorrow’s man and woman in dynamic motion, vivid and vivacious. They represent the future. Freedom. And do you know what money looks like in the future? cryptocurrency, of course.

If you’re as confounded about cryptocurrency as I am, then welcome to the party, friend. And amid the smokescreen of this commercial’s style and subterfuge, it’s easy to overlook Spike Lee’s kicker of a catchphrase. It comes amid the confusion almost like a subliminal message, camouflaged in the cacophony, an afterthought designed to alter thought.

“Do your own research.”

For the sake of focus, I’ll present the CliffsNotes version of the controversy concerning cryptocurrency. Firstly, the creation of crypto is an energy glutton, gorging on gigawatts of electricity on a planet that’s in desperate need of an energy diet.

Secondly, crypto claims to be an anonymous means of trading and transferring money, in a financial system that for decades has been in dire need of more accountability in accounting.

By dint of simply being a bad idea, cryptocurrency has been holding a shit hand of cards from the start. Yet despite that (because of that), crypto has always played the public relations game with a perfect poker face. Of course it has. For when your cards are crap, and you’ve already staked so much on the game, the best option is to bluff.

Here’s where Doing Your Own Research enters the picture. Let’s call it DYO for brevity’s sake.

In extolling the virtues of DYO, here through the medium of Spike Lee, The Crypto Keepers hope you’ll happen upon a favorable factoid or two on the internet. This is misinformation as misdirection. Sleight of hand disguised in the smock of citizen-science.

Or they hope the DYO researcher, sent off to swim in unfamiliar and uncharted seas of expertise, is drowned in the sheer volume of information out there, emerging soaked and uncertain about what’s true.

Either outcome is a boon for a fledgling industry awash in bad press, and the regular hammering from real experts on the subject.

Spike Lee has evolved here from Doing the Right Thing, to Doing Your Own Research. This is somewhat understandable, as the latter requires much less work from all parties involved. For after all, who’s to say what the right thing is? Why not do a little research on the subject, dear reader, and get back to us?

Also, there’s the money. While dividends from that decades-old film have likely long since declined, the cash to be made from hocking cryptocurrency is cold, hard and quite current.

Keep an eye out for Tom Brady pimping cryptocurrency to the superfan set, and his supermodel wife Gisele selling the same. The power couple will reportedly receive shares of crypto in exchange for promoting the product. Having seen the Spike Lee spot, one can anticipate the athletic leaps in logic that the Brady/Giselle ads might employ:

Oh, you have encyclopedic knowledge of every football statistic relating to Tom Brady? With that kind of meticulous mind, of course you’re qualified to quarterback your own personal research project on crypto. DYO your data-driven heart out! And in the meantime, why not join the team early by acquiring a few shares toward the economic end-zone of financial security?

Yet despite the roster of a-list celebrities hired to hock this foolish financial instrument, the weight of public opinion appears to be turning against cryptocurrency. Perhaps further jaded by the financial collapse of 2007/2008, the public eye is wide open and exceptionally wary of opaque financial monstrosities marketed as innovation.

Indeed, the best evidence of this shift in the zeitgeist may be that big-crypto feels compelled to bring out the big celebrity guns to defend it.

But DYO isn’t just a useful tool of powerful and moneyed interests. When evidence and science isn’t on our side, DYO is a parachute cord that can be pulled to spare us from doing other than what we want to do. It can save us from admitting we were wrong, from going through all the hassle of doing what’s right.

This metaphor put me in mind of the cartoon gag, wherein Wile E. Coyote has parachuted from a plane in his perpetual pursuit of the Roadrunner. Pulling his ripcord, an assortment of kitchen utensils and other jetsam comes streaming out.

Lesson: Don’t pack a parachute with anything other than what will bring you softly back down to earth. Don’t fill your head with hunches, anecdotes, wishful thinking, biases, Facebook threads, celebrity worship - and regard this as research or knowledge.

To the contrary, DYO is often an essential step in the self-delusional dance that lets your uncle declare himself a historian due to all the Civil War documentaries he’s devoured. As individuals and tribes, we are exceptionally bad at ferreting out fact from fiction, burdened as we are by biases, self-interest, and groupthink. Know thyself.

And I get it. It’s not appealing to admit we’re largely ignorant about the intricacies of much of the world we inhabit. But it’s true. Concerning the vast majority of spheres of knowledge in our society, we are all end users.

It’s humbling to realize that much of the safety and civilization we enjoy is built upon the scaffolding of people who are experts in specialized genres of knowledge and skills, gained and gifted by the many generations of humans that came before. A little humility goes a long way.

This is not advice against knowing things. By all means, we should learn all we can. Rather, it’s a reminder to know our limits. To be on the lookout for DYO deployed as a tool of disinformation, and on the lookout too for powerful interests that seek to use us as tools toward the same end. It’s an antidote, I hope, to the snake oil being sold in the self-help section.

DYO on the little things, by all means. Check for those 4.5-star ratings when buying a set of yoga pants or drill bits online. Do not DYO research when it comes to climate change, pandemics and the like. You know, world-civilization stuff.  A slew of scientists specialize in such areas of expertise, train their entire lives to sleuth out the facts and keep one another accountable. They’re our best option. They’ve got this.

Dear reader, you’ll forgive me for saying that I don’t want to share any highway with a fleet of fellow motorists who have done the research on how to install brake pads on their cars. I trust you feel the same.

This is no mere thought experiment. Even now it’s taking a real-time and real-world toll all over the globe, especially so here in these un-United States of America. Amplified by identity politics and division, DYO research is a favored wedge in the anti-vax toolbox, a big part of the reason we in the U.S. are suffering a comeback of Covid cases.

This was put on tragic and vivid display recently, when a doctor treating her (unvaccinated) patients related a recurring story. In the terrible throes of Covid, and a breathing tube perhaps bound for the inside of their bodies, many would ask for the vaccine.

This is like lying broken in the street, inquiring about seat belts after crashing bodily through a windshield. No doubt many of these Covid victims had investigated the vaccine themselves, and found the evidence unpersuasive. Reality can be a ruthless teacher.   

Your aunt’s personal experience with the Pfizer vaccine is not research. That Facebook thread you follow is not a scientific community. In the realm of peer-reviewed studies, you are very, very likely not a peer.

Here’s what I am a definitive expert on: my life during the pandemic. Rejoice, intrepid reader, for you are just such an expert as well. No one on earth can match my expertise on the experience of being me (the good and the bad) during the lockdowns and life-derangement of 2020.

My conclusion over these many months of personal observation? I’d rather not repeat it. For all their flaws, I much prefer societies as they were before Covid. Getting there requires far fewer Facebook threads on the virus and its vaccinations.

And to get where most of us want to go as a species and civilization requires far less of the self-delusion, deflection, and disinformation we derive from a doctorate degree in DYO research.

So yes, I happily declare myself an ignoramus about the intricacies of most matters of great import and impact, and will shout my stupidity about such subjects from the rooftops.

For the world needs far fewer ersatz experts. And far more deference and respect for folks who are the real deal.