Don’t believe everything you learn

By Stephanie Youssef

Over the weekend I watched Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, when he announced he was releasing a book that was nothing but a collection of lies and made up facts about history. The book was to be titled “History Lies,” but he then hilariously ended the segment saying he had been lying for the entire video and that there was no book to begin with.

Though John Oliver was merely kidding, I spent most of the segment believing every word he said. Growing up, most of us were told “don’t believe everything you hear,” and I’m sure following that advice saved us from a lot of trouble throughout our youth. But as college students, we are thrown into classrooms with books and exams and are generally trained to believe that what our professors say and the content we read in textbooks are absolute facts.

Though we are mainly here to learn, all students and academics in general should see the value in approaching what we read and hear with certain degrees of skepticism. As students, introducing a healthy level of doubt in questioning underlying assumptions can be helpful in verifying information and eliminating misconceptions.

I understand the paradox between what I am saying and the fact that you are currently reading this very article, but allow me to explain.

This week, an investigation led by University of Virginia Professor of Psychology Brian Nosek found that of 100 psychology studies published in 2008, only 36 percent of the results were reproducible. Over 270 scientists on five different continents replicated the 100 experiments and in the end, over 50 percent of cognitive psychology studies and 75 percent of social psychology studies failed to replicate their results when repeated.

The lack of consistent results from these studies show that either the conclusions are wrong, not significant or that more research is needed. However, the results of many of these studies are taught in psychology classes and are cited in psychology textbooks. Though the lack of validity highlights the weak reliability of psychology research, a key takeaway according to Dr. Nosek is that “one study is not going to be the last word.” But we don’t always think of that when listening to a lecture or reading a textbook.

As students, we enroll in classes taught by very knowledgeable professors who have dedicated their lives to the study of the field that they are teaching. But it is important to keep in mind that disagreement exists even among researchers and academics.

For example, in 1998, a researcher conducted a study that found a connection between autism and vaccines. The study was not based on statistics or reliable research methods, but that didn’t stop it from leading to one in five millennials in the U.S. believing some vaccines cause autism in healthy children. Despite dozens of follow-up studies conducted by other skeptical academics with over 14 million children that found no link between autism and vaccines, people still believed one poorly conducted study that was later found to be fabricated. If those who read and reported the initial study had been more skeptical of the results and had been more careful in researching more vaccine studies, the great vaccine debate probably wouldn’t be an issue today.

Now this is not to say that everything we see and hear is all of a sudden a lie (unless you are a 17th century philosopher named Rene Descartes). There is a difference between cynicism and skepticism; there are merits to applying reasoning and critical thinking to determine validity in every situation.

There is a lot of truth to what we learn in our classes, but there are many uncertainties that are accepted without substantial validation. Some may say that skeptics are pessimistic, but I would argue that skepticism can be an extremely positive influence. Skeptical students playing the devil’s advocate can help filter out weak arguments and strengthen those that pass the test.

When a professor of anthropology tries to teach you that Chief Illiniwek creates a negative climate against all Native American students, seek a contradictory viewpoint. When former Chancellor Wise emails you that the university administration is dedicated to academic freedom, look up a recent report by the American Association of University Professors. When someone tries to tell you that vaccines cause autism, go look at the hundreds of studies done by reputable researchers that say otherwise.

As students, our opportunity to learn from questioning is one unrivaled in any other setting. Academia thrives on curiosity and the advancement of knowledge is verified by the ability of students and academics to think critically. Question, doubt and reason through everything, and you will reach well supported, accurate conclusions.

Stephanie is a senior in LAS.

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