May 7 • 12M

Yes, You're Doing Research

(Even if you're on the toilet)

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Hello! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about science, curiosity, wonder and exactly the right kinds of stupidity.

And here’s an excellent reminder of a very important scientific principle:

Today I thought I’d try out Substack’s embedded audio feature - starting with one of the most financially terrifying moments of my adult life.

Transcript

It’s 2009, and I’m attempting to bankrupt myself with a book. 

It’s not a rare book. It’s not even an expensive book - about £25, if you buy it in hardcover, or about 20 quid if you get the paperback. The book is “Europe” by Norman Davies, and it’s an absolute bloody whopper - 2,300 pages. It’s also weighty - not just in the sense it weighs a ton (which it does), but because I can get through maybe one or two pages at a time before my head is so stuffed with interesting questions that I have to go spend the rest of the day on Wikipedia. 

This incredibly slow speed of reading is the source of my problems. That and the fact that it isn’t my book. I mean god if it was my book, that would be so great, the perfect timeline. 

But no: this is the dark mirror universe where I did the wrong thing, which was - I got it from a library. On a two-week loan. And that was…ten years ago.

Look, in my defence - okay, I don’t really have a defence, but my explanation is that I borrowed it, and then shortly after I went to university to study Archaeology. This was in the city of York, about 2-3 hours away by bus. And the few times that I had the chance to go back home for a few days, it was only for the weekend, when I’d think “oh no, it’s Friday night, the library doesn’t open on a Saturday and I’m going back to York on Sunday night, I’ll just have to return that bloody thing another time.”

And so, in the way that they do, the years passed.    

Now it’s 2009, I’m living in York now, but I’m back in my hometown for the summer - and I’ve decided, at long last, to do the right thing. The furiously passive-aggressive letters from the town council stopped after about the second year, and I haven’t entered the library (or indeed any library in East Yorkshire, just in case) for eight years, and I’m sick of it.

I’ve sick of always hurrying past it with my head down.

I’m sick of making excuses to my mum when she asks me if I could hand in her own library books - “Look mum, I’m really really busy so, so I’d have to throw them, through the door, can you put them in a bag?” 

And I’m sick of feeling like the very worst kind of criminal - a criminal who steals from public libraries, where basically everything is already free but that’s just not good enough for someone like me, is it, I have to go steal the free book so nobody else can have it.

After ten years of this, I’m verging on hysteria. This thing has become like the ring of Sauron - I don’t care if I have to throw it and myself into a lake of lava, as long as it’s just gone. So I’m going to enter the library, and tell my story, and accept my punishment.

I’ve already worked out what my punishment is, by the way. At the standard 30p a day fine for overdue books, I owe East Riding Libraries around £1,100. This would be fine if I had £1,100, but I don’t. I work at the University of York in a print shop and get paid just enough money to keep my bank balance at the limit of its maximum overdraft, only alleviated by my income from the freelance writing work I’m squeezing into my spare time - of which I have none.

It’s a situation that gives me no hope of ever raising £1,100 and I’m presuming that if they ask, I’ll just have to go to prison. Fine. (At least I won’t have to eat any more of my own cooking.)  

So I walk in.

Or I try to, because the doors have changed, and I just kinda fight the wrong one for a while until someone uses it to exit the library and I sneak through before it closes again.

By now everyone’s looking at me, so I’m guessing there won’t be any problems describing my face to the police.

I go up to the main desk and start to mumble out a confession.

“What was the title again?” said the library’s desk clerk.

Europe, by Norman Davies” I spit out with self-loathing. “You can’t miss it. You’d have had a gap in one of your shelves. Or maybe an empty shelf.”

“There’s no record, I’m afraid. No record of you neither, Mr Cowdung.” (I don’t correct him, just in case he pulls up my correct name and it’s marked “SHOOT ON SIGHT) “but that’s not surprising after the upgrade.”

“Upgrade?”

“Oh yes, marvellous it is. All the East Yorkshire libraries are now organised around a centralised computer network called the East Coast Computerised Logistical Electronic Systematic Collection And Keepership Edifice - or ECCLESCAKE - which keeps everything running smoothly. We don’t need to issue fines nowadays – no, the computer identifies likely suspects or “Pre-Finers”, and the police drop in to check how far through the book they are. It’s elegant and it’s progressive. And according to ECCLESCAKE you don’t actually exist – and neither does that book you’re holding. Isn’t that grand? That said, we do have a collection box for the East Riding Home For Disadvantaged Sheep, so if you’d like to leave a donation…”

But I’ve gone by this point - first unsuccessfully, using the wrong door, and then finally out into the open again. Into freedom, with the rest of my life ahead of me.

At this point, I really fell in love with public libraries. Certainly my time at University helped - not only were we using the University of York’s massive, endless JB Morrell library and various academic archives dotted around the city, we also used York’s main library, which has archives of all sorts of stuff on microfilm that go back centuries.

But being allowed back into the library where I grew up, even though I wasn’t technically not allowed, was a major tipping-point. 

Libraries are extraordinary places, if you think about it. Anyone is allowed in, as long as they’re quiet enough, which should be a rule basically everywhere if you ask me. They’re not trying to sell you anything except maybe library membership, which is either free or laughably cheap - and it’s not really socially weird to spend all day in them. You can even do other things there if you’re quiet, and as long those things are themselves socially acceptable.

Libraries aren’t just great for writers - they are, for most people, amazing places to just go and think.

They’re also enduringly popular. In the UK, around a third of the population visits a library at least once a year. In the US in 2019, there were 174 million registered library card holders - just over half of everyone.

At the same time, working in a library is really hard - you only have to read Anne Helen Petersen’s recent newsletter “The Librarians Are Not OK” to understand the situation in the States, and I’m sure it’s no different over here too…although I don’t think Britain currently has a problem with people trying to ban books - that thing that rarely goes according to the plan of the people doing the banning. 

(Tip for book marketers: if you want your work to be read for at least the next half-century and probably a lot longer, get it banned. You’ll thank me later.)  

So, libraries are awesome. And I’m British, and we don’t ever use the word awesome. But libraries are. And one great thing they can do for you is to help you do research.

Now, this is a really interesting word. The dictionary says it’s “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.”

Since the start of the pandemic, a new definition has come into popular use: some idiot on his or her phone watching endless insane, conspiracy-theory-riddled YouTube videos while they’re sat on the toilet. I’m sure you’ve seen all the memes on this, I don’t need to elaborate.

Obviously some of this ridicule is justified. When you see someone on Twitter who has tweeted 150,000 times since 2010 and who has 16 followers and they’re yelling pseudoscientific facts in a really aggressive way at a scientist who has worked at the forefront of that scientific field in question for the last 50 years, some eyerolling is understandable. 

Or even better, some complete and utter ignoring. Last week in his newsletter, science writer Phil Plait talked about LMGTFY questions - meaning Let Me Google That For You. Stuff that can easily be answered by typing it into Google - or stuff that can easily be thoroughly debunked by an equally simple Google search query.


***UPDATE*** My thanks to Mikki Halpin for making this excellent point on Twitter:

The thread under that tweet has links to stories at Gizmodo & The Guardian about this problem - and all this made me think about what “search for Google results” means in practice. Does it mean, to trust the answers Google itself is increasingly putting at the top of search results in a super-authoritative manner? Or does it mean “scroll through all the web results that appear and look for the most credible sources?” The issue Mikki is referring to is a serious problem in both cases, but maybe less so in the latter instance? But either way, it’s really dangerous when those results can be maliciously gamed - as this story illustrates all too well.


You have to ask yourself - if this yelling person hasn’t done that - why? Sometimes it’s because someone just wants to make a human connection with one of their heroes, but if they’re loud and angry, the usual answer is: they don’t care what’s right or wrong, they just want the meaningless, pointless thrill of enticing you into a fight on social media.

But then - all this got turned into a kind of shame about using the word ‘research’. Oh RLY, you’ve been doing your ‘research’, have you??? - with the implication that you’ve copied & pasted your thinking from some dodgy wellness influencer on Instagram. 

But this can feel really unfair, because it includes anyone who is doing any level of reading on something that they haven’t made a professional career around. Which includes almost all of us. It certainly includes enthusiasts like me, writing newsletters like this, trying to convey the fun of this stuff in a hopefully credible way without mangling the facts too much in the service of a good story.

So I was really grateful to hear the journalist Ed Yong, who talked about all this in a big Twitter Spaces discussion late last year. Ed has been writing about the human cost of the pandemic at The Atlantic, where he’s a staff writer, and last year his…incredible work won him the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. Richly deserved. It’s some of the best science writing you could ever read - except for, well, other work by Ed Yong. What a hero.

In the discussion, which was about the impact of Long COVID, another journalist was curling their lip at the idea of members of the public doing their own research - and Ed pushed back. He noted that many of the people who had contacted him with questions had done not only the right kind of reading, but also arguably more reading than many currently overworked doctors, when it came to the most recent scientific papers coming out about this new and debilitating condition.

Most of those members of the public were sufferers of Long COVID, who were at home, trying to recover, and having a lot of free time on their hands. So they were ploughing that time into doing research of a credible kind - sifting through the latest data, trying to understand it, and trying to come up with better questions that might help them when they approached medical professionals for further help - or, when they sent those questions to people like Ed Yong.

This kind of citizen research is, in its non-twisted form, a really good thing, and it really shouldn’t be looked down upon.

You can also spot it because it frequently displays two commendable traits: it’s self-questioning - like “I don’t know if this is right or not” or even just “I don’t know,” which - how often do we hear that online? - and also, it’s self-correcting: when the person discovers they’re probably or definitely wrong, they step up and admit it, and they correct themselves publicly, explaining why and how they were wrong.

(That stuff really is gold when you see it. Bravo.) 

So now that libraries are opening up again - well, firstly, go use them! They’re fantastic.

And secondly: if you’re in there, curiously nerding out over something that interests you and making your own notes and building your own understanding of it - yes, you’re doing research. There is no shame in trying to understand something better, even if you start by knowing nothing about that thing (which is a very fun place to start, quite frankly - I’ve made my entire newsletter out of it). 

It doesn’t mean you’re Ed Yong, or that you deserve a teaching position at a University, or deserve anything really - and you’re going to have to work really hard to do some original research. But you are engaged in research - and if you’re sharing your findings in the right way, for the right reasons (primarily, to get other people excited about them) with the right kind of respectful, open-to-correction attitude, and an awareness of the limitations of your understanding, how is that bad?

It isn’t. Bring it on.

And with that in mind, I need to go do a bit more reading for the second part of my Mid-Atlantic Trench writeup, so I can have lunch and then throw myself in the sea. (It’s finally getting warm enough to go swimming here in Scotland.)

Hope you have a grand weekend.

Cheers!

- Mike


Images: Syd Wachs; Gabriel Sollmann.