There’s a popular meme in the evidence-based fitness and medicine spaces that goes like this:

If you’re “searching for things on the Internet” or “watching YouTube videos” or “reading articles,” you’re not “doing your own research” but merely “consuming content”—an activity that’s about as enlightening as fondling yourself while arguing with Chinese bots on Twitter.

This sentiment plays well with the peanut gallery because, as Aldous Huxley noted, the opportunity to maltreat others with good conscience, to misbehave as a form of righteous indignation, is “the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.” And so there’s much hooting and honking about the benighted searchers of things on the Internet, watchers of YouTube videos, and readers of articles.

William James once said the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated. I wonder if he had also considered the craving to feel superior?

Anway, this whole construct is so absurd it hardly deserves attention, but let’s gut it anyway and see what we can learn from its entrails.

What is “research”?

If you ask the dumb dumb dummies, they’ll say something like, “research is skillfully reviewing every study you can find on the matter and then determining the balance of the evidence blah blah blah.”

So basically, unless you’re a trained scientist with more time on your hands than an unvaxxed Aussie under permanent lockdown, you’re simply incapable of “doing research” and coming to good conclusions but only “consuming content” and continuing to be clueless. Sorry, sweetie.

In reality, reviewing scientific studies is one method of research, and ironically, if we take the offending line of thinking to its logical extreme, scientists reading scientific research they didn’t conduct themselves is dubious because what if biases in design, data, analysis, and presentation produced false findings? What if data was dredged or falsified? What if null findings on the topic were never published? 

Many times, there’s no way to know whether someone else’s research is genuine and accurate, so scrupulous study of scientific research can lead even the most endowed experts astray.

Now, you could say that despite its shortcomings, skilled scientific scrutiny is more likely to produce better outcomes than other haphazard methods of research, but then you’d only be making my next point for me, which begins with the definition of “research.”

The Oxford dictionary says it’s “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.” Webster’s say it’s “studious inquiry or examination” (with “studious” meaning “marked by or suggesting purposefulness or diligence”) and even “the collecting of information about a particular subject.”

Right away, then, we’ve learned that ferreting around on the internet to find things to watch, read, and listen to is in fact “doing research.” The crux, however, is how you go about watching, reading, and listening. Are you doing good research? 

And that requires more than just scientific literacy (which anyone can learn, by the way). You have to understand the grammar of logic and rhetoric. You have to seek and consider the strongest counterpoints to your preferred theories and beliefs. It helps to be conversant in assorted mental models, philosophical razors, and cognitive forcing strategies. 

There are many ways, then, for science-minded folk and laypeople alike to do horrendously bad research—selection biases, confirmation biases, disconfirmation biases, conformity biases, availability biases, selective skepticism, faulty generalization, the list yammers on. To suggest, however, that only formally educated specialists are capable of “doing good research” is like suggesting that only porn (das)star(d)s are capable of a good tumble.

So, if we were to recast this meme to make it more truthful, it would declare that many people aren’t good at doing their own research and could benefit from some metacognitive refinement, but where’s the fun in that? No righteous indignation. No psychological luxury. No moral treat.


If you want a crash course in reading, understanding, and applying scientific research to optimize your health, fitness, and wellbeing, check out my book Fitness Science Explained.

It covers all of the big moving parts, including . . .

  • The basics of the scientific method
  • The differences between randomized trials and observational studies
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  • The anatomy of statistical analysis
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You’ll also learn how to get access to full-text studies (without spending a fortune) and the most popular journals for exercise, nutrition, and supplementation, and you’ll get a scientist-formulated “cheat sheet” that’ll help you quickly and accurately estimate the quality of research you want to review.

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