Playing the Expert: ‘Doing Your Own Research’ as Epistemic Cosplay
By Joshua Blanchard, Oakland University
Consider the following scenario. You and I both have an interest in the origins of the COVID-19 Pandemic, but neither of us has training or expertise in virology, public health, epidemiology, medicine, journalism, or anything similar. Let’s say I find myself moved by “zoonotic origin” defenders like Edward Holmes, who believe the pandemic began naturally, and you find yourself moved by lab leak defenders like Robert Redfield. How does our debate proceed? It probably goes something like this: I memorize the arguments of my experts, and you memorize the arguments of yours. I throw my experts’ factoids at you, and you throw yours at me. At no point does one of us acquire training in a relevant field at an accredited institution, establish a laboratory, hire graduate student workers, write papers that pass peer review, or any of the other activities that in a literal sense constitute scientific research. Indeed, in typical cases neither of us even can do these things. So, what we are left with is more like play-acting, simulating what a debate between people like Holmes and Redfield might look like. We are engaged in epistemic cosplay.
I define “epistemic cosplay” as a kind of epistemological make-believe in which we speak and communicate as if we are experts in some field, but where we are really just mimicking or parroting the views and arguments of experts we’ve chosen on the basis of our less-than-ideal lay judgments. In what follows I will argue that this sort of behavior is often what is really going on when people think they are doing their own research, and that it is not especially valuable.
Epistemic cosplay may be an intellectually fun way to spend time for some people. According to Neil Levy, the special brand of epistemic cosplay known as “conspiracy theorizing” can literally function as a kind of “serious play”: engaging in a game of imagination as we all do from time to time (that’s the “play” part) while falsely taking oneself to really believe the imaginings (that’s the “serious” part). But even apart from conspiracies specifically, it might just be satisfying to play the expert. I, with my degree in the humanities, might enjoy parroting Peter Woit’s fulminations against String Theory while you, a medical professional, might arguing against me with what you’ve gleaned from reading Brian Greene.
Here I want to argue that epistemic cosplay typically has little—though perhaps not zero—value beyond the fun it might provide. First, consider two different scenarios.
In scenario 1—call it “Expert Consensus”—there is an identifiable expert consensus, a sizable majority of experts in the relevant field or fields who converge on a family of positions similar enough to count as agreement. Call consensus-supporting experts “majority experts”, and dissident experts “minority experts”. The latter category is important to note, because consensus does not imply universal agreement. If the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, professional societies, and studies converge on a position (or a family of positions) regarding the science of anthropocentric climate change, there can still be a minority of experts who diverge from it.
In scenario 2—call it “Expert Discord”—there is widespread expert disagreement, a situation where no position rises above support from a mere plurality of experts. In Expert Discord, there are no majority or minority experts.
Many (like philosopher Michael Huemer) hold some version of the Deference View. This view says that laypeople should side with the majority experts in Expert Consensus but should suspend judgment—wait for a consensus—in Expert Discord. The basic argument goes something like this. If there is a consensus, then not only is the best explanation for the consensus a convergence on the truth, but the overwhelming testimony of the majority experts is sufficient to defeat whatever reasoning a layperson might come up with anyway. While expert consensus can turn out to be wrong, it is only rational for laypeople to abandon it when the consensus itself shifts—in other words, when the majority experts themselves realize they are wrong. If a layperson went against the grain and got things right, then it was mere luck. Put another way, a layperson is never justified in agreeing with minority experts. In Expert Discord, the Deference View argues that a layperson lacks the relevant skills and knowledge to adjudicate a dispute between experts beyond merely parroting one side. While the layperson can decide that one side of an expert dispute is right, this decision isn’t any more epistemically warranted than the already-existing positions of the various divergent experts. The layperson may as well have flipped a coin or cast lots to decide which experts to favor.
Especially since the rise of the Internet, another view has become prominent: the Do Your Own Research (DYOR) View. This view says something rather different. In Expert Consensus, the DYOR View says that a layperson can determine that minority experts make the better arguments or offer better evidence, by hearing both sides out in their popular format, or perhaps by perusing the primary evidence themselves. As for why there is an incorrect consensus, the layperson has any variety of explanations available: systematic biases or conflicts of interest (say, funding by a certain invested industry), cultural pressures and cowardice, group think, and so on. So much the better for the layperson in Expert Discord where there is no consensus to explain away. On the DYOR View, even if the layperson doesn’t have the relevant skills, knowledge, or resources to engage in first-order research in the expert domain, they may very well have the basic skills sufficient for adjudicating a dispute between experts. This skill of adjudication must be such that you can acquire it very quickly—in much less time than it takes to earn a graduate degree.
The DYOR View is the most plausible when it comes to something of immediate, practical importance in the context of Expert Discord, though it even has its appeal in Expert Consensus. For example, becoming an “informed patient” is widely commended by an array of medical and governmental institutions alike, and while they do not mean that laypeople should go out and get medical degrees before going to the doctor’s office, they clearly mean to suggest a certain kind of “research” even when a doctor’s judgment reflects medical consensus. So is this a case of epistemic cosplay? I think not, because the main reason why a patient ought to be informed is not to correct what a doctor learned in medical school or from medical research, but to relate medical expertise to a patient’s own preferences, values, and more holistic knowledge of their personal history, all areas where the patient is arguably more “expert” than even their own doctor. A second and related reason to be an informed patient is to be able to identify where expert medical testimony is masking tacit non-expert assumptions, values, etc., for example in how the risks and benefits of a procedure are presented rhetorically.
Moreover, many public controversies that seem to involve laypeople engaging in epistemic cosplay are in truth like the informed patient case. For example, Stephanie Harvard and colleagues have plausibly argued that even technical matters like pandemic modeling involve not only many intersecting areas of expertise but robust value judgments, so there are no serious grounds for excluding laypeople from their development and relationship to decision-making – quite the opposite. So, a “layperson” opining on a question like whether or not a certain model shows that schools should close is not necessarily engaging in epistemic cosplay (unless the layperson were to be specifically opining on matters of viral transmission models exclusively, or something like that).
Outside of cases where these caveats are germane, I commend the Deference View over the DYOR View. The DYOR View gains plausibility from cases where either non-expert matters are at issue or where a person is forced to choose between disagreeing experts due to practical necessity. These are not genuine cases of epistemic cosplay. But in cases where all the layperson is doing is a sophisticated parroting of favored experts, engaging in a low-grade version of what a graduate student might do when tasked to complete a literature review—except with no relevant training or experience to speak of—then the activity is contributing nothing of intellectual value beyond what already exists. In a sense, in these cases you really cannot do your own research; all you can do is cosplay. A debate like Zoonotic Origin vs. Lab Leak is certainly like this. For the lay inquiry to gain intellectually on the mere coin flip—to actually constitute research—it must add something in knowledge, skill, …. etc. beyond what is already possessed by the disagreeing experts. DYOR advocates are not forthcoming about what this added value is.
The aim of this blog post has not been to argue against doing your own research per se. There are many other familiar areas where doing your own research does not collapse into mere epistemic cosplay. According to a 2018 Pew Research study, 81% of Americans rely significantly on “their own research” when making “major life decisions”, whereas only 31% rely on “professional experts.” Given the sorts of choices people probably count as “major life decisions”—where to live, who to marry, whether to have children, what career to pursue, etc.—this is perhaps unsurprising and even proper. For one thing, it’s important to most of us to make such decisions authentically; that is to say, we want to make our own decisions in these areas. But more importantly for my purposes here, there is simply no such thing as expertise for a question like “Where should I live?” or “Should I take this job?” Although there are professional advisers for these kinds of decisions, the decisions themselves are not matters of expertise along the same lines as questions of biology, astrophysics, ancient history, Spanish translation, automobile repair, and so on. Poking around online or just introspecting really is research in a lot of personal cases. Not so for Zoonotic Origins vs. Lab Leak.
So, we need not be against “doing your own research” in general, and we should work to be shrewd in determining which matters are and are not squarely within a discrete domain of expertise. And we need not even be against epistemic cosplay, since it can be fun. But we also mustn’t mistake epistemic cosplay for real contributions to an already-developed expert domain.