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How I Make Sure I'm the Best Parent Researcher I Can Be

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Max's dad, Audra's husband, and cofounder of Yes Collective with Audra. I also have two PhDs (one in geography and the other in public health) and I coordinate and plan with dozens of experts all the articles and workshops we produce in Yes Collective.

By now, we've all "done our own research," consulted "Dr. Google," and maybe even earned a degree from internet university. It's what parents do, and I'm not here to discount it. In fact, I'm here to encourage parents to do more of it—and to do it better.  

I wanted to write this article to use what I've learned after two PhDs to help parents do regular ol' internet research. I'm only going to focus on health-related research because that's what we're all here for, but I think the principles of research I talk about here can be applied to researching any aspect of life.

What do I mean by "research"?

There are, broadly speaking, two types of health research:

  1. Original research that involves conducting experiments and/or collecting original data
  2. Finding, reading/listening to, and judging the original research of others

As someone who has spent most of his adult life at a university, I've done quite a bit of the first type of research. I've written a book, published a dozen peer-reviewed articles, and even helped our non-profit, MaxLove Project, collaborate with CHOC Hospital on a research study that has been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal.

But as a parent, I've also done a lot more of the second. So, when I talk about parent research, I'm talking about the second type of research where we go online and search key terms and look for others' research and what experts say about that research.

As parents, we're not conducting experiments or collecting original data; instead we're listening to podcasts, scouring the internet, and watching documentaries. And then we make sense of the information and judge how valid it is.

This second type of research consists of:

  • Finding and judging the trustworthiness of people who either have done original research or have more expertise than us to collect and analyze the original research
  • Gathering information from sources we find trustworthy
  • Working to make sense of the information we've gathered (this is also known as analysis and synthesis)

What do I think it means to do good research?

I think that we first need to define what good research is. For me, the number one goal of good research is to produce a more accurate view of something (health, biology, economics, or whatever) than we had before.

I don't want to do research to make myself happier.

I don't want to do research to calm my nerves.

I don't want to do research to show someone else they're wrong.

Good therapy can handle all of this much better than research can!

What we want out of doing our own research is to gain a more accurate view of something. And we need to be prepared to be disappointed, frustrated, and confused by what we find.

This is because the world is infinitely more complex than our current understanding of it. So when we do honest research, we're going to be made uncomfortable.

How can we make sure we're doing good research?

Here is my three-step plan for doing good parent research:

1) Set aside your gut feelings and commit to discomfort

Gut feelings are important when we need to make split-second decisions, or when there's not enough information to think through a decision. But when we're sitting down to get a more accurate view of something (diet, a supplement, some alternative health approach, etc.), it's important to set aside our gut feelings because they will usually lead us to focus on biased information that only confirms what we already believe. We want the truth, not comfort.

Another reason to set aside our gut feelings when doing research is that our gut feelings are often connected to our own trauma, fear, and resistance. Leading with our guts when doing research is a recipe for being led down the wrong road.

Instead, we can go straight into the trauma, fear, and resistance and work through it in therapy, supportive relationships, and regular emotional health practices like our Wednesday Wind-Down. I'd love to see you there!

My experience is that every time I commit to learning something new about the world, I come up against some uncomfortable gut feelings. The world always shows itself to be way more complicated and messy than I previously thought.

If I'm not emotionally prepared for this discomfort, I won't be able to learn something new. Getting a clearer, more accurate view of the world has often led me to disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

But on the other side of this discomfort, has always been a wonderful sense of calm from no longer being under the sway of previous illusions. And now I can cycle through this process of discomfort-to-calm faster when I prepare myself for the discomfort beforehand.

2) Understand that our brains were not built for truth but for survival

The human brain evolved to survive by being tightly bound to a small tribe. All of our most fancy brain features are ultimately about using symbols to connect with each other, cooperate, and fight off outsiders. When we use our brains to get a more accurate view of the world, we're working against the grain.

One of the most well-known ways our brain fights against accuracy is called confirmation bias. It's a psychological habit everyone has that leads us to focus only on information that confirms our prior beliefs while ignoring, or heavily criticizing, information that contradicts our prior beliefs.

Our brains keep our belief systems stable by drawing our attention toward research, news, or social media posts that agree with beliefs we already have. And then our brains draw attention away from research, news, or social media that disagrees with beliefs we already have.

3) Find experts with legit credentials AND who do original research

Academic credentials are an easy and valuable way to suss out better from worse ideas. If the main proponents of an idea do not hold credentials (a PhD or MD) from a well-known institution and are not currently affiliated with a well-known institution, then those ideas should be treated with a lot of skepticism.

Why? It all has to do with peer review. To get a credential from a good institution and to continue to be affiliated with these institutions, one must undergo A LOT of scrutiny and criticism by others with those credentials.

To get research funding and publish the research in top science journals, a researcher needs to show all their methods and data in peer review. They can't make unsubstantiated claims. They can't make stuff up. Peer review is woven into the fabric of original research and academic work, so bad ideas are more likely to be identified, criticized, and rejected.

What about when people with legit credentials disagree and have wildly different views?

This is where things get tricky. There are plenty of people who have PhDs and MDs from legitimate institutions and who also hold unusual, unconventional, and downright strange views that are rejected by others with PhDs and MDs.

When this happens, we have to take sides. But whose side should we follow: the mainstream view we can find on government or university-sponsored websites, or the outside, unconventional view we find on independent blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos?

My rule of thumb is that I'll go with the view that has the greatest number of scientists doing the original research. You can find this out by looking at the people making a claim and asking:

  1. Are they conducting or have they conducted original research studies? Or are they just people with credentials talking about other people's research?
  2. Are they currently employed by a university? Or are they primarily making money from book sales, YouTube videos, or their own websites?
  3. How many legitimately credentialed people can I find on the unusual/unconventional/strange side of the argument?

If the answer to #1 is that the person making unconventional claims hasn't done any original research then they can be dismissed.

If the answer to #2 is that the person making unconventional claims is primarily self-employed through book sales, etc. then they can be dismissed (because wild, crazy claims sell books and YouTube views, so they have a clear conflict of interest regarding the truth).

If the answer to #3 is that there are only a few credentialed people on one side and thousands of credentialed people on the other then go for the side with thousands of credentialed people.

Case Study #1

Take someone like Carrie Madej, DO. She holds a credential of Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, which is a fully licensed doctor who can treat patients in their specialty areas and prescribe medicine. DOs go through the same general training as MDs, and so pass the first test of parent research: they have legitimate credentials.

But Carrie Madej is not a normal DO. She became an anti-vaccine internet sensation in 2020 when she posted YouTube videos (since taken down) claiming that mRNA vaccines will alter human DNA, turning us into genetically modified organisms; that vaccines have not been tested on animals; that vaccines don't undergo randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials; and that vaccines will “hook us all up to an artificial intelligence interface.” I only know about this from this blog post by a professor at McGill University.

Dr. Madej has made the rounds on dozens of podcasts making the same claims and many others. So, how should we judge this information? Let's use my rules of thumb:

1. Does she conduct research?

I can find no evidence that Dr. Madej has ever conducted original research or has any first-hand knowledge of original research currently being done. She's a primary care doctor who sees patients with coughs and fevers on a daily basis.

2. Is she employed by a university or does she make money off of wild claims?

She's not currently, nor has she ever been from what I can see, employed by a university. She's a regular primary care doctor in the suburbs of Atlanta. It's not clear that she's making any money off of these highly unusual claims though.

3. How many other legit credentialed people on her side?

This is hands-down the biggest strike against her. These are massively unconventional claims, so they better have a massive number of experts backing them up. But they simply don't.

When I Google each claim, I see that they have page after page of university and scientific institutions explaining why each claim is flat out false.

Here is Children's Hospital of Philadelphia explaining how mRNA vaccines do not alter human DNA. Here is the most prestigious science journal in the world, Nature, writing about animal testing for vaccines. Here is the most prestigious medical journal in the US writing about how governments should continue to do placebo-controlled trials on the COVID vaccines even though such trials have already been done!

Her last claim about artificial intelligence is so unconventional, I can't find any information on it at all. So, it's clear that she's on the wrong side of a scientific consensus, and even though she has a DO, that doesn't mean she always knows what she's talking about.

Case Study #2

What about something closer to the work our non-profit does in the cancer world? You might have heard of Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD. I won't bother giving a lot of background, but let's say you come across the Burzynski Clinic claims online and want to figure out if this is something to take seriously. You do a little online searching and see that he has an MD and PhD but he's also considered to be far outside of the mainstream. Let's go through my three questions:

1. Does he conduct research?

This is tricky. He has conducted some peer-reviewed research in the distant past and appears to be involved in an FDA-sanctioned 20+ year clinical trial for his own drug concoction. But there are so many problems with this "trial."

First, according to Burzynski's lawyer, the FDA made a deal with him in the late 1990s that he would be allowed to continue his unproven therapy if he registered it as a clinical trial with the FDA. This was just a bureaucratic work-around (his lawyer called it a "joke") to appease patients who said they were being helped by his concoction.

Second, he's never published a peer-review study from his trials and the efficacy of his concoction has never been successfully replicated by anyone else.

Third, after decades he has never applied to have his concoction approved by the FDA. Fourth, his decades-long "trial" has repeatedly been sanctioned by the FDA for serious health problems and financial impropriety. All this is documented here, here, and here.

2. Is he employed by a university or does he make money off of wild claims?

This one's easy. He's not employed by a university or any independent institution. Rather he makes all his money by selling his unproven concoction at his own clinic. Big time conflict of interest.

3. How many other legit credentialed people are on his side? Another easy one. I couldn't find any credentialed person, let alone someone associated with a university or hospital to back him up. There are clearly many more legit credentialed people calling Burzynski a fraud than there are those defending him. It's not even close.

I write all this not to tell anyone what to do, but to provide my perspective as someone who has done original research in universities and has spent time with a lot of people who do original research. I know how the sausage is made.

My goal is to start a conversation by writing about what I think are the best rules of thumb to follow for parents who want to do their own research and have a more accurate view of the world. I'd love to hear what your rules of thumb are!

How I Make Sure I'm the Best Parent Researcher I Can Be

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How I Make Sure I'm the Best Parent Researcher I Can Be

Thanks to the magic of the internet, we're all parent researchers these days. From diagnosing strange rashes to digging into vaccine controversies, mountains of information await any parent who wants to get some answers.

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Key takeaways

1

When researching, set aside gut feelings and get ready to be uncomfortable

2

Keep in mind that our brains aren't built for The Truth but rather are built for survival; this makes it harder to get an accurate view of the world

3

Find experts who have legit credentials AND who also do original research and listen to what they say

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For those of you who don't know me, I'm Max's dad, Audra's husband, and cofounder of Yes Collective with Audra. I also have two PhDs (one in geography and the other in public health) and I coordinate and plan with dozens of experts all the articles and workshops we produce in Yes Collective.

By now, we've all "done our own research," consulted "Dr. Google," and maybe even earned a degree from internet university. It's what parents do, and I'm not here to discount it. In fact, I'm here to encourage parents to do more of it—and to do it better.  

I wanted to write this article to use what I've learned after two PhDs to help parents do regular ol' internet research. I'm only going to focus on health-related research because that's what we're all here for, but I think the principles of research I talk about here can be applied to researching any aspect of life.

What do I mean by "research"?

There are, broadly speaking, two types of health research:

  1. Original research that involves conducting experiments and/or collecting original data
  2. Finding, reading/listening to, and judging the original research of others

As someone who has spent most of his adult life at a university, I've done quite a bit of the first type of research. I've written a book, published a dozen peer-reviewed articles, and even helped our non-profit, MaxLove Project, collaborate with CHOC Hospital on a research study that has been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal.

But as a parent, I've also done a lot more of the second. So, when I talk about parent research, I'm talking about the second type of research where we go online and search key terms and look for others' research and what experts say about that research.

As parents, we're not conducting experiments or collecting original data; instead we're listening to podcasts, scouring the internet, and watching documentaries. And then we make sense of the information and judge how valid it is.

This second type of research consists of:

  • Finding and judging the trustworthiness of people who either have done original research or have more expertise than us to collect and analyze the original research
  • Gathering information from sources we find trustworthy
  • Working to make sense of the information we've gathered (this is also known as analysis and synthesis)

What do I think it means to do good research?

I think that we first need to define what good research is. For me, the number one goal of good research is to produce a more accurate view of something (health, biology, economics, or whatever) than we had before.

I don't want to do research to make myself happier.

I don't want to do research to calm my nerves.

I don't want to do research to show someone else they're wrong.

Good therapy can handle all of this much better than research can!

What we want out of doing our own research is to gain a more accurate view of something. And we need to be prepared to be disappointed, frustrated, and confused by what we find.

This is because the world is infinitely more complex than our current understanding of it. So when we do honest research, we're going to be made uncomfortable.

How can we make sure we're doing good research?

Here is my three-step plan for doing good parent research:

1) Set aside your gut feelings and commit to discomfort

Gut feelings are important when we need to make split-second decisions, or when there's not enough information to think through a decision. But when we're sitting down to get a more accurate view of something (diet, a supplement, some alternative health approach, etc.), it's important to set aside our gut feelings because they will usually lead us to focus on biased information that only confirms what we already believe. We want the truth, not comfort.

Another reason to set aside our gut feelings when doing research is that our gut feelings are often connected to our own trauma, fear, and resistance. Leading with our guts when doing research is a recipe for being led down the wrong road.

Instead, we can go straight into the trauma, fear, and resistance and work through it in therapy, supportive relationships, and regular emotional health practices like our Wednesday Wind-Down. I'd love to see you there!

My experience is that every time I commit to learning something new about the world, I come up against some uncomfortable gut feelings. The world always shows itself to be way more complicated and messy than I previously thought.

If I'm not emotionally prepared for this discomfort, I won't be able to learn something new. Getting a clearer, more accurate view of the world has often led me to disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

But on the other side of this discomfort, has always been a wonderful sense of calm from no longer being under the sway of previous illusions. And now I can cycle through this process of discomfort-to-calm faster when I prepare myself for the discomfort beforehand.

2) Understand that our brains were not built for truth but for survival

The human brain evolved to survive by being tightly bound to a small tribe. All of our most fancy brain features are ultimately about using symbols to connect with each other, cooperate, and fight off outsiders. When we use our brains to get a more accurate view of the world, we're working against the grain.

One of the most well-known ways our brain fights against accuracy is called confirmation bias. It's a psychological habit everyone has that leads us to focus only on information that confirms our prior beliefs while ignoring, or heavily criticizing, information that contradicts our prior beliefs.

Our brains keep our belief systems stable by drawing our attention toward research, news, or social media posts that agree with beliefs we already have. And then our brains draw attention away from research, news, or social media that disagrees with beliefs we already have.

3) Find experts with legit credentials AND who do original research

Academic credentials are an easy and valuable way to suss out better from worse ideas. If the main proponents of an idea do not hold credentials (a PhD or MD) from a well-known institution and are not currently affiliated with a well-known institution, then those ideas should be treated with a lot of skepticism.

Why? It all has to do with peer review. To get a credential from a good institution and to continue to be affiliated with these institutions, one must undergo A LOT of scrutiny and criticism by others with those credentials.

To get research funding and publish the research in top science journals, a researcher needs to show all their methods and data in peer review. They can't make unsubstantiated claims. They can't make stuff up. Peer review is woven into the fabric of original research and academic work, so bad ideas are more likely to be identified, criticized, and rejected.

What about when people with legit credentials disagree and have wildly different views?

This is where things get tricky. There are plenty of people who have PhDs and MDs from legitimate institutions and who also hold unusual, unconventional, and downright strange views that are rejected by others with PhDs and MDs.

When this happens, we have to take sides. But whose side should we follow: the mainstream view we can find on government or university-sponsored websites, or the outside, unconventional view we find on independent blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos?

My rule of thumb is that I'll go with the view that has the greatest number of scientists doing the original research. You can find this out by looking at the people making a claim and asking:

  1. Are they conducting or have they conducted original research studies? Or are they just people with credentials talking about other people's research?
  2. Are they currently employed by a university? Or are they primarily making money from book sales, YouTube videos, or their own websites?
  3. How many legitimately credentialed people can I find on the unusual/unconventional/strange side of the argument?

If the answer to #1 is that the person making unconventional claims hasn't done any original research then they can be dismissed.

If the answer to #2 is that the person making unconventional claims is primarily self-employed through book sales, etc. then they can be dismissed (because wild, crazy claims sell books and YouTube views, so they have a clear conflict of interest regarding the truth).

If the answer to #3 is that there are only a few credentialed people on one side and thousands of credentialed people on the other then go for the side with thousands of credentialed people.

Case Study #1

Take someone like Carrie Madej, DO. She holds a credential of Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, which is a fully licensed doctor who can treat patients in their specialty areas and prescribe medicine. DOs go through the same general training as MDs, and so pass the first test of parent research: they have legitimate credentials.

But Carrie Madej is not a normal DO. She became an anti-vaccine internet sensation in 2020 when she posted YouTube videos (since taken down) claiming that mRNA vaccines will alter human DNA, turning us into genetically modified organisms; that vaccines have not been tested on animals; that vaccines don't undergo randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials; and that vaccines will “hook us all up to an artificial intelligence interface.” I only know about this from this blog post by a professor at McGill University.

Dr. Madej has made the rounds on dozens of podcasts making the same claims and many others. So, how should we judge this information? Let's use my rules of thumb:

1. Does she conduct research?

I can find no evidence that Dr. Madej has ever conducted original research or has any first-hand knowledge of original research currently being done. She's a primary care doctor who sees patients with coughs and fevers on a daily basis.

2. Is she employed by a university or does she make money off of wild claims?

She's not currently, nor has she ever been from what I can see, employed by a university. She's a regular primary care doctor in the suburbs of Atlanta. It's not clear that she's making any money off of these highly unusual claims though.

3. How many other legit credentialed people on her side?

This is hands-down the biggest strike against her. These are massively unconventional claims, so they better have a massive number of experts backing them up. But they simply don't.

When I Google each claim, I see that they have page after page of university and scientific institutions explaining why each claim is flat out false.

Here is Children's Hospital of Philadelphia explaining how mRNA vaccines do not alter human DNA. Here is the most prestigious science journal in the world, Nature, writing about animal testing for vaccines. Here is the most prestigious medical journal in the US writing about how governments should continue to do placebo-controlled trials on the COVID vaccines even though such trials have already been done!

Her last claim about artificial intelligence is so unconventional, I can't find any information on it at all. So, it's clear that she's on the wrong side of a scientific consensus, and even though she has a DO, that doesn't mean she always knows what she's talking about.

Case Study #2

What about something closer to the work our non-profit does in the cancer world? You might have heard of Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD. I won't bother giving a lot of background, but let's say you come across the Burzynski Clinic claims online and want to figure out if this is something to take seriously. You do a little online searching and see that he has an MD and PhD but he's also considered to be far outside of the mainstream. Let's go through my three questions:

1. Does he conduct research?

This is tricky. He has conducted some peer-reviewed research in the distant past and appears to be involved in an FDA-sanctioned 20+ year clinical trial for his own drug concoction. But there are so many problems with this "trial."

First, according to Burzynski's lawyer, the FDA made a deal with him in the late 1990s that he would be allowed to continue his unproven therapy if he registered it as a clinical trial with the FDA. This was just a bureaucratic work-around (his lawyer called it a "joke") to appease patients who said they were being helped by his concoction.

Second, he's never published a peer-review study from his trials and the efficacy of his concoction has never been successfully replicated by anyone else.

Third, after decades he has never applied to have his concoction approved by the FDA. Fourth, his decades-long "trial" has repeatedly been sanctioned by the FDA for serious health problems and financial impropriety. All this is documented here, here, and here.

2. Is he employed by a university or does he make money off of wild claims?

This one's easy. He's not employed by a university or any independent institution. Rather he makes all his money by selling his unproven concoction at his own clinic. Big time conflict of interest.

3. How many other legit credentialed people are on his side? Another easy one. I couldn't find any credentialed person, let alone someone associated with a university or hospital to back him up. There are clearly many more legit credentialed people calling Burzynski a fraud than there are those defending him. It's not even close.

I write all this not to tell anyone what to do, but to provide my perspective as someone who has done original research in universities and has spent time with a lot of people who do original research. I know how the sausage is made.

My goal is to start a conversation by writing about what I think are the best rules of thumb to follow for parents who want to do their own research and have a more accurate view of the world. I'd love to hear what your rules of thumb are!

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Max's dad, Audra's husband, and cofounder of Yes Collective with Audra. I also have two PhDs (one in geography and the other in public health) and I coordinate and plan with dozens of experts all the articles and workshops we produce in Yes Collective.

By now, we've all "done our own research," consulted "Dr. Google," and maybe even earned a degree from internet university. It's what parents do, and I'm not here to discount it. In fact, I'm here to encourage parents to do more of it—and to do it better.  

I wanted to write this article to use what I've learned after two PhDs to help parents do regular ol' internet research. I'm only going to focus on health-related research because that's what we're all here for, but I think the principles of research I talk about here can be applied to researching any aspect of life.

What do I mean by "research"?

There are, broadly speaking, two types of health research:

  1. Original research that involves conducting experiments and/or collecting original data
  2. Finding, reading/listening to, and judging the original research of others

As someone who has spent most of his adult life at a university, I've done quite a bit of the first type of research. I've written a book, published a dozen peer-reviewed articles, and even helped our non-profit, MaxLove Project, collaborate with CHOC Hospital on a research study that has been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal.

But as a parent, I've also done a lot more of the second. So, when I talk about parent research, I'm talking about the second type of research where we go online and search key terms and look for others' research and what experts say about that research.

As parents, we're not conducting experiments or collecting original data; instead we're listening to podcasts, scouring the internet, and watching documentaries. And then we make sense of the information and judge how valid it is.

This second type of research consists of:

  • Finding and judging the trustworthiness of people who either have done original research or have more expertise than us to collect and analyze the original research
  • Gathering information from sources we find trustworthy
  • Working to make sense of the information we've gathered (this is also known as analysis and synthesis)

What do I think it means to do good research?

I think that we first need to define what good research is. For me, the number one goal of good research is to produce a more accurate view of something (health, biology, economics, or whatever) than we had before.

I don't want to do research to make myself happier.

I don't want to do research to calm my nerves.

I don't want to do research to show someone else they're wrong.

Good therapy can handle all of this much better than research can!

What we want out of doing our own research is to gain a more accurate view of something. And we need to be prepared to be disappointed, frustrated, and confused by what we find.

This is because the world is infinitely more complex than our current understanding of it. So when we do honest research, we're going to be made uncomfortable.

How can we make sure we're doing good research?

Here is my three-step plan for doing good parent research:

1) Set aside your gut feelings and commit to discomfort

Gut feelings are important when we need to make split-second decisions, or when there's not enough information to think through a decision. But when we're sitting down to get a more accurate view of something (diet, a supplement, some alternative health approach, etc.), it's important to set aside our gut feelings because they will usually lead us to focus on biased information that only confirms what we already believe. We want the truth, not comfort.

Another reason to set aside our gut feelings when doing research is that our gut feelings are often connected to our own trauma, fear, and resistance. Leading with our guts when doing research is a recipe for being led down the wrong road.

Instead, we can go straight into the trauma, fear, and resistance and work through it in therapy, supportive relationships, and regular emotional health practices like our Wednesday Wind-Down. I'd love to see you there!

My experience is that every time I commit to learning something new about the world, I come up against some uncomfortable gut feelings. The world always shows itself to be way more complicated and messy than I previously thought.

If I'm not emotionally prepared for this discomfort, I won't be able to learn something new. Getting a clearer, more accurate view of the world has often led me to disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

But on the other side of this discomfort, has always been a wonderful sense of calm from no longer being under the sway of previous illusions. And now I can cycle through this process of discomfort-to-calm faster when I prepare myself for the discomfort beforehand.

2) Understand that our brains were not built for truth but for survival

The human brain evolved to survive by being tightly bound to a small tribe. All of our most fancy brain features are ultimately about using symbols to connect with each other, cooperate, and fight off outsiders. When we use our brains to get a more accurate view of the world, we're working against the grain.

One of the most well-known ways our brain fights against accuracy is called confirmation bias. It's a psychological habit everyone has that leads us to focus only on information that confirms our prior beliefs while ignoring, or heavily criticizing, information that contradicts our prior beliefs.

Our brains keep our belief systems stable by drawing our attention toward research, news, or social media posts that agree with beliefs we already have. And then our brains draw attention away from research, news, or social media that disagrees with beliefs we already have.

3) Find experts with legit credentials AND who do original research

Academic credentials are an easy and valuable way to suss out better from worse ideas. If the main proponents of an idea do not hold credentials (a PhD or MD) from a well-known institution and are not currently affiliated with a well-known institution, then those ideas should be treated with a lot of skepticism.

Why? It all has to do with peer review. To get a credential from a good institution and to continue to be affiliated with these institutions, one must undergo A LOT of scrutiny and criticism by others with those credentials.

To get research funding and publish the research in top science journals, a researcher needs to show all their methods and data in peer review. They can't make unsubstantiated claims. They can't make stuff up. Peer review is woven into the fabric of original research and academic work, so bad ideas are more likely to be identified, criticized, and rejected.

What about when people with legit credentials disagree and have wildly different views?

This is where things get tricky. There are plenty of people who have PhDs and MDs from legitimate institutions and who also hold unusual, unconventional, and downright strange views that are rejected by others with PhDs and MDs.

When this happens, we have to take sides. But whose side should we follow: the mainstream view we can find on government or university-sponsored websites, or the outside, unconventional view we find on independent blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos?

My rule of thumb is that I'll go with the view that has the greatest number of scientists doing the original research. You can find this out by looking at the people making a claim and asking:

  1. Are they conducting or have they conducted original research studies? Or are they just people with credentials talking about other people's research?
  2. Are they currently employed by a university? Or are they primarily making money from book sales, YouTube videos, or their own websites?
  3. How many legitimately credentialed people can I find on the unusual/unconventional/strange side of the argument?

If the answer to #1 is that the person making unconventional claims hasn't done any original research then they can be dismissed.

If the answer to #2 is that the person making unconventional claims is primarily self-employed through book sales, etc. then they can be dismissed (because wild, crazy claims sell books and YouTube views, so they have a clear conflict of interest regarding the truth).

If the answer to #3 is that there are only a few credentialed people on one side and thousands of credentialed people on the other then go for the side with thousands of credentialed people.

Case Study #1

Take someone like Carrie Madej, DO. She holds a credential of Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, which is a fully licensed doctor who can treat patients in their specialty areas and prescribe medicine. DOs go through the same general training as MDs, and so pass the first test of parent research: they have legitimate credentials.

But Carrie Madej is not a normal DO. She became an anti-vaccine internet sensation in 2020 when she posted YouTube videos (since taken down) claiming that mRNA vaccines will alter human DNA, turning us into genetically modified organisms; that vaccines have not been tested on animals; that vaccines don't undergo randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials; and that vaccines will “hook us all up to an artificial intelligence interface.” I only know about this from this blog post by a professor at McGill University.

Dr. Madej has made the rounds on dozens of podcasts making the same claims and many others. So, how should we judge this information? Let's use my rules of thumb:

1. Does she conduct research?

I can find no evidence that Dr. Madej has ever conducted original research or has any first-hand knowledge of original research currently being done. She's a primary care doctor who sees patients with coughs and fevers on a daily basis.

2. Is she employed by a university or does she make money off of wild claims?

She's not currently, nor has she ever been from what I can see, employed by a university. She's a regular primary care doctor in the suburbs of Atlanta. It's not clear that she's making any money off of these highly unusual claims though.

3. How many other legit credentialed people on her side?

This is hands-down the biggest strike against her. These are massively unconventional claims, so they better have a massive number of experts backing them up. But they simply don't.

When I Google each claim, I see that they have page after page of university and scientific institutions explaining why each claim is flat out false.

Here is Children's Hospital of Philadelphia explaining how mRNA vaccines do not alter human DNA. Here is the most prestigious science journal in the world, Nature, writing about animal testing for vaccines. Here is the most prestigious medical journal in the US writing about how governments should continue to do placebo-controlled trials on the COVID vaccines even though such trials have already been done!

Her last claim about artificial intelligence is so unconventional, I can't find any information on it at all. So, it's clear that she's on the wrong side of a scientific consensus, and even though she has a DO, that doesn't mean she always knows what she's talking about.

Case Study #2

What about something closer to the work our non-profit does in the cancer world? You might have heard of Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD. I won't bother giving a lot of background, but let's say you come across the Burzynski Clinic claims online and want to figure out if this is something to take seriously. You do a little online searching and see that he has an MD and PhD but he's also considered to be far outside of the mainstream. Let's go through my three questions:

1. Does he conduct research?

This is tricky. He has conducted some peer-reviewed research in the distant past and appears to be involved in an FDA-sanctioned 20+ year clinical trial for his own drug concoction. But there are so many problems with this "trial."

First, according to Burzynski's lawyer, the FDA made a deal with him in the late 1990s that he would be allowed to continue his unproven therapy if he registered it as a clinical trial with the FDA. This was just a bureaucratic work-around (his lawyer called it a "joke") to appease patients who said they were being helped by his concoction.

Second, he's never published a peer-review study from his trials and the efficacy of his concoction has never been successfully replicated by anyone else.

Third, after decades he has never applied to have his concoction approved by the FDA. Fourth, his decades-long "trial" has repeatedly been sanctioned by the FDA for serious health problems and financial impropriety. All this is documented here, here, and here.

2. Is he employed by a university or does he make money off of wild claims?

This one's easy. He's not employed by a university or any independent institution. Rather he makes all his money by selling his unproven concoction at his own clinic. Big time conflict of interest.

3. How many other legit credentialed people are on his side? Another easy one. I couldn't find any credentialed person, let alone someone associated with a university or hospital to back him up. There are clearly many more legit credentialed people calling Burzynski a fraud than there are those defending him. It's not even close.

I write all this not to tell anyone what to do, but to provide my perspective as someone who has done original research in universities and has spent time with a lot of people who do original research. I know how the sausage is made.

My goal is to start a conversation by writing about what I think are the best rules of thumb to follow for parents who want to do their own research and have a more accurate view of the world. I'd love to hear what your rules of thumb are!

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Max's dad, Audra's husband, and cofounder of Yes Collective with Audra. I also have two PhDs (one in geography and the other in public health) and I coordinate and plan with dozens of experts all the articles and workshops we produce in Yes Collective.

By now, we've all "done our own research," consulted "Dr. Google," and maybe even earned a degree from internet university. It's what parents do, and I'm not here to discount it. In fact, I'm here to encourage parents to do more of it—and to do it better.  

I wanted to write this article to use what I've learned after two PhDs to help parents do regular ol' internet research. I'm only going to focus on health-related research because that's what we're all here for, but I think the principles of research I talk about here can be applied to researching any aspect of life.

What do I mean by "research"?

There are, broadly speaking, two types of health research:

  1. Original research that involves conducting experiments and/or collecting original data
  2. Finding, reading/listening to, and judging the original research of others

As someone who has spent most of his adult life at a university, I've done quite a bit of the first type of research. I've written a book, published a dozen peer-reviewed articles, and even helped our non-profit, MaxLove Project, collaborate with CHOC Hospital on a research study that has been peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal.

But as a parent, I've also done a lot more of the second. So, when I talk about parent research, I'm talking about the second type of research where we go online and search key terms and look for others' research and what experts say about that research.

As parents, we're not conducting experiments or collecting original data; instead we're listening to podcasts, scouring the internet, and watching documentaries. And then we make sense of the information and judge how valid it is.

This second type of research consists of:

  • Finding and judging the trustworthiness of people who either have done original research or have more expertise than us to collect and analyze the original research
  • Gathering information from sources we find trustworthy
  • Working to make sense of the information we've gathered (this is also known as analysis and synthesis)

What do I think it means to do good research?

I think that we first need to define what good research is. For me, the number one goal of good research is to produce a more accurate view of something (health, biology, economics, or whatever) than we had before.

I don't want to do research to make myself happier.

I don't want to do research to calm my nerves.

I don't want to do research to show someone else they're wrong.

Good therapy can handle all of this much better than research can!

What we want out of doing our own research is to gain a more accurate view of something. And we need to be prepared to be disappointed, frustrated, and confused by what we find.

This is because the world is infinitely more complex than our current understanding of it. So when we do honest research, we're going to be made uncomfortable.

How can we make sure we're doing good research?

Here is my three-step plan for doing good parent research:

1) Set aside your gut feelings and commit to discomfort

Gut feelings are important when we need to make split-second decisions, or when there's not enough information to think through a decision. But when we're sitting down to get a more accurate view of something (diet, a supplement, some alternative health approach, etc.), it's important to set aside our gut feelings because they will usually lead us to focus on biased information that only confirms what we already believe. We want the truth, not comfort.

Another reason to set aside our gut feelings when doing research is that our gut feelings are often connected to our own trauma, fear, and resistance. Leading with our guts when doing research is a recipe for being led down the wrong road.

Instead, we can go straight into the trauma, fear, and resistance and work through it in therapy, supportive relationships, and regular emotional health practices like our Wednesday Wind-Down. I'd love to see you there!

My experience is that every time I commit to learning something new about the world, I come up against some uncomfortable gut feelings. The world always shows itself to be way more complicated and messy than I previously thought.

If I'm not emotionally prepared for this discomfort, I won't be able to learn something new. Getting a clearer, more accurate view of the world has often led me to disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

But on the other side of this discomfort, has always been a wonderful sense of calm from no longer being under the sway of previous illusions. And now I can cycle through this process of discomfort-to-calm faster when I prepare myself for the discomfort beforehand.

2) Understand that our brains were not built for truth but for survival

The human brain evolved to survive by being tightly bound to a small tribe. All of our most fancy brain features are ultimately about using symbols to connect with each other, cooperate, and fight off outsiders. When we use our brains to get a more accurate view of the world, we're working against the grain.

One of the most well-known ways our brain fights against accuracy is called confirmation bias. It's a psychological habit everyone has that leads us to focus only on information that confirms our prior beliefs while ignoring, or heavily criticizing, information that contradicts our prior beliefs.

Our brains keep our belief systems stable by drawing our attention toward research, news, or social media posts that agree with beliefs we already have. And then our brains draw attention away from research, news, or social media that disagrees with beliefs we already have.

3) Find experts with legit credentials AND who do original research

Academic credentials are an easy and valuable way to suss out better from worse ideas. If the main proponents of an idea do not hold credentials (a PhD or MD) from a well-known institution and are not currently affiliated with a well-known institution, then those ideas should be treated with a lot of skepticism.

Why? It all has to do with peer review. To get a credential from a good institution and to continue to be affiliated with these institutions, one must undergo A LOT of scrutiny and criticism by others with those credentials.

To get research funding and publish the research in top science journals, a researcher needs to show all their methods and data in peer review. They can't make unsubstantiated claims. They can't make stuff up. Peer review is woven into the fabric of original research and academic work, so bad ideas are more likely to be identified, criticized, and rejected.

What about when people with legit credentials disagree and have wildly different views?

This is where things get tricky. There are plenty of people who have PhDs and MDs from legitimate institutions and who also hold unusual, unconventional, and downright strange views that are rejected by others with PhDs and MDs.

When this happens, we have to take sides. But whose side should we follow: the mainstream view we can find on government or university-sponsored websites, or the outside, unconventional view we find on independent blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos?

My rule of thumb is that I'll go with the view that has the greatest number of scientists doing the original research. You can find this out by looking at the people making a claim and asking:

  1. Are they conducting or have they conducted original research studies? Or are they just people with credentials talking about other people's research?
  2. Are they currently employed by a university? Or are they primarily making money from book sales, YouTube videos, or their own websites?
  3. How many legitimately credentialed people can I find on the unusual/unconventional/strange side of the argument?

If the answer to #1 is that the person making unconventional claims hasn't done any original research then they can be dismissed.

If the answer to #2 is that the person making unconventional claims is primarily self-employed through book sales, etc. then they can be dismissed (because wild, crazy claims sell books and YouTube views, so they have a clear conflict of interest regarding the truth).

If the answer to #3 is that there are only a few credentialed people on one side and thousands of credentialed people on the other then go for the side with thousands of credentialed people.

Case Study #1

Take someone like Carrie Madej, DO. She holds a credential of Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, which is a fully licensed doctor who can treat patients in their specialty areas and prescribe medicine. DOs go through the same general training as MDs, and so pass the first test of parent research: they have legitimate credentials.

But Carrie Madej is not a normal DO. She became an anti-vaccine internet sensation in 2020 when she posted YouTube videos (since taken down) claiming that mRNA vaccines will alter human DNA, turning us into genetically modified organisms; that vaccines have not been tested on animals; that vaccines don't undergo randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials; and that vaccines will “hook us all up to an artificial intelligence interface.” I only know about this from this blog post by a professor at McGill University.

Dr. Madej has made the rounds on dozens of podcasts making the same claims and many others. So, how should we judge this information? Let's use my rules of thumb:

1. Does she conduct research?

I can find no evidence that Dr. Madej has ever conducted original research or has any first-hand knowledge of original research currently being done. She's a primary care doctor who sees patients with coughs and fevers on a daily basis.

2. Is she employed by a university or does she make money off of wild claims?

She's not currently, nor has she ever been from what I can see, employed by a university. She's a regular primary care doctor in the suburbs of Atlanta. It's not clear that she's making any money off of these highly unusual claims though.

3. How many other legit credentialed people on her side?

This is hands-down the biggest strike against her. These are massively unconventional claims, so they better have a massive number of experts backing them up. But they simply don't.

When I Google each claim, I see that they have page after page of university and scientific institutions explaining why each claim is flat out false.

Here is Children's Hospital of Philadelphia explaining how mRNA vaccines do not alter human DNA. Here is the most prestigious science journal in the world, Nature, writing about animal testing for vaccines. Here is the most prestigious medical journal in the US writing about how governments should continue to do placebo-controlled trials on the COVID vaccines even though such trials have already been done!

Her last claim about artificial intelligence is so unconventional, I can't find any information on it at all. So, it's clear that she's on the wrong side of a scientific consensus, and even though she has a DO, that doesn't mean she always knows what she's talking about.

Case Study #2

What about something closer to the work our non-profit does in the cancer world? You might have heard of Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD. I won't bother giving a lot of background, but let's say you come across the Burzynski Clinic claims online and want to figure out if this is something to take seriously. You do a little online searching and see that he has an MD and PhD but he's also considered to be far outside of the mainstream. Let's go through my three questions:

1. Does he conduct research?

This is tricky. He has conducted some peer-reviewed research in the distant past and appears to be involved in an FDA-sanctioned 20+ year clinical trial for his own drug concoction. But there are so many problems with this "trial."

First, according to Burzynski's lawyer, the FDA made a deal with him in the late 1990s that he would be allowed to continue his unproven therapy if he registered it as a clinical trial with the FDA. This was just a bureaucratic work-around (his lawyer called it a "joke") to appease patients who said they were being helped by his concoction.

Second, he's never published a peer-review study from his trials and the efficacy of his concoction has never been successfully replicated by anyone else.

Third, after decades he has never applied to have his concoction approved by the FDA. Fourth, his decades-long "trial" has repeatedly been sanctioned by the FDA for serious health problems and financial impropriety. All this is documented here, here, and here.

2. Is he employed by a university or does he make money off of wild claims?

This one's easy. He's not employed by a university or any independent institution. Rather he makes all his money by selling his unproven concoction at his own clinic. Big time conflict of interest.

3. How many other legit credentialed people are on his side? Another easy one. I couldn't find any credentialed person, let alone someone associated with a university or hospital to back him up. There are clearly many more legit credentialed people calling Burzynski a fraud than there are those defending him. It's not even close.

I write all this not to tell anyone what to do, but to provide my perspective as someone who has done original research in universities and has spent time with a lot of people who do original research. I know how the sausage is made.

My goal is to start a conversation by writing about what I think are the best rules of thumb to follow for parents who want to do their own research and have a more accurate view of the world. I'd love to hear what your rules of thumb are!

Enjoying this article? Subscribe to the Yes Collective for more expert emotional wellness just for parents.

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