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First a short disclaimer. I am not an academic or scientist. I have been a ghostwriter for a company that does custom academic research and writing and have done a bunch of research that would probably suffice for a dozen of degrees. I have researched theories of behavior management in primary school children and analyzed business strategies of companies, I have explored cognitive mechanisms of learning and history of American literature, the most recent SEO strategies and kidney diseases. I have been in this business of research for more than 10 years and that’s what I have to share about why we learn, and why we this curse of research writing can be actually a good idea. 

What’s the most important takeaway from school or college

Why do you think you write all these research papers? Is this an exercise in language, in writing, in neat formatting according to APA or MLA recommendations?
Also, why do we study at school? Is there a point in memorizing a whole bunch of information when we can get that info on Google within seconds? Is this some sort of a contest in the ability to listen to boring lectures, or memorizing data and terms, or reading really long books without falling asleep?

I think, the biggest point of education in general, and essay writing in particular, is to learn to THINK. “Think” does now equal “know”. Think does not equal remember. Think does not equal be sure of. There is a special type of thinking that our education is supposed to teach us (but it’s not emphasized very often, unfortunately), it’s called critical thinking

Critical thinking means an ability to approach the problem from many angles. Ability to doubt and ask questions as to validity of what you hear. Ability to not believe blindly and be gullible. Ability to look at counter-arguments. Ability to look for holes and shortcomings. Ability to see opportunities of how to test a theory or correct a shortcoming. The idea is, we’re supposed to develop our brains in school, folks. To have flexible, lively, sharp intellect, curious and critical mind. Be explorers of life, ask questions and look for answers, but not become fanatics defending just one side of the story. 

Thinking is also an executive function of our brain that we aim to develop, it includes considering bits of information, looking for patterns, and then choosing strategic action. 

An ideal teacher should encourage children to doubt and challenge the status quo rather than merely recite facts from a textbook. Certainly, we need some background information to operate in every day, life “basic facts” to agree upon, but there may come a day when we will have to question that information as well. 

"Ability to not believe blindly"... This concerns not only politicians but science as well.

Science as a new civilizational myth

Do you think our science has advanced so far that we know “everything” now?

Take Earth. First, we believed that we live on a piece of land supported by elephants standing on a whale. Then we thought that God created Earth in 7 days. Later archeologists said that probably it was not in 7 days. Then we knew about the Sun, and the moon and some planets, but thought that they all rotate around the Earth. Then it turned out that they do not. Then it turned out that although the Earth does rotate around the Sun, the Sun itself is a pretty small and insignificant star located on the periphery of our galaxy. Then it turned out that there are millions and millions of such galaxies in the Universe (as they say now, we have more galaxies in the Universe than grains of sand on the entire Earth), and the Universe itself is ever-expanding. Then came theories about the Big Bang, black holes and dark matter. Then we could not reconcile the theory of relativity with the quantum physics and to make the math fit, suggested there should be either parallel universes (many-worlds interpretation) or at least 11 space-time dimensions in our universe (string theory), or maybe our universe started as an inside of a black hole of another universe. 

The point is, nobody really knows for sure. It’s all just ideas, and the popularity of one or the other idea depends only on how many reputed scientists support it now.

And you might think: ‘It’s OK that we don’t know “the truth” about the Universe yet, because it’s so far out there, it’s hard to figure out. But things that we have right here in front of our eyes, we know.”
Hmmm.. Maybe. If we’re lucky. Think about this for a second. 

  1. In the 50s and 60s, DDT was used widely as a pesticide. Not only it affected people, causing cancer, but it led many species to near-extinction, like American Bald Eagle and Peregrine falcon.
  2. Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine and therefore was called “the dope”. 
  3. In the 1940s and 1950s, one of the often-used procedures in treating psychiatric disorders was a lobotomy. And the scientist who invented it, Antonio Egaz Moniz, received a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. 
  4. In the 1940s and 1950s, they used to radiate thymus glands in infants, because doctors at that time thought that these glands were too large. It turned out that the misconception had its roots in the textbooks that used bodies of poor people for the illustration of anatomy. Poor people had smaller thymus glands as a result of malnutrition and lifestyle factors. This mass radiation of infants caused breast and thyroid cancer
  5. Radiation was used not only for “medical” reasons. In 1940s, inside shoe stores, they could radiate your feet to find out your shoe size.

You might think this is all old stuff. Science has advanced and such stupid mistakes don’t happen anymore. Then let’s talk about recent developments.

  1. OK, what about that this quite recent anti-fat craze? In the late 1970s, the American government announced that cholesterol is bad for you, and encouraged people to eat less saturated fats. New products emerged that claimed to have no cholesterol, but added something that turned out to be much worse than that: trans-fats in margarine and specially treated oils, so-called “partially hydrogenated oils”. They raise the bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and lower the good cholesterol (HDL) levels, increase the risk of heart disease and stroke and type 2 diabetes. So when it was noticed that the problem is not only saturated fat but trans-fats as well, the message was simplified: you just need to avoid fat - all fat for the sake of simplicity - in all your food. The entire industry has organized itself around producing fat-free products, which, as you can guess, had to be heavily processed to be fat-free. People who wanted to go fat-free would end up replacing caloric deficits by carbs: lots of sugar and refined grains. This is the time that started the American obesity epidemic, and many claim that this fat-free fad was the direct cause of it. So now we see the low-fat myth debunked, and a new fashion starts for low-carb and high-fat diets like a recent hype of ketogenic diet. Perhaps in this case as well, we need to wait for a few decades and see what effects such a shift in nutrition will bring in the long run. 
  2. Just a few years ago a new recommendation for cancer screening emerged in the medical community. It turns out that common cancer screening recommendations are overdone, do not yield efficacy, cost society a lot of money, and can even have negative effects, like side effects of treating minor diseases that would never evolve into anything serious.
  3. As another example let’s see how our understanding of our minds’ inner machinery has evolved. This guy Antonio Egaz Moniz, who invented lobotomy, sincerely thought that the cause of psychological disorders was in flawed synaptic connections between neurons, and if we mess around in your frontal lobe a little bit with a giant ice picker, they will rearrange themselves and fall into place. Then scientists evolved to understand that it’s not about mashing your brains with ice pickers, it’s about the balance of neurotransmitters. You might have depression because you have a deficit of serotonin or dopamine, so let’s prescribe you serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and you will be OK. And this approach still works, but now the understanding expands even more. It’s not just about the presence and the balance of neurotransmitters, but about the growth factors - the molecules that make the inner machinery of neuron growth, maintenance, and communication - that can make the picture more complete. BDNF, NGF, neurotrophins and the other neuromolecules are very important for a brain’s health. And with every decade, scientists discover some new factors, they make the picture more whole. 

So let me ask you a question. This guy Moniz, who received a Nobel prize for inventing lobotomy, would he really want to mess up people’s brains unless he was sure it works - he was sure that “it is the truth” in other words? Would eugenic scientists sterilize women against their will or conduct experiments on prisoners were they not confident that they are revealing “the truth” here? Would doctors radiate babies unless they had no doubt that they are actually helping them? 

I think that it would do better for a humanity if we had less of a self-assured arrogance and more humility, more questioning of what the heck we are doing and is it really, really safe? 

Because, after assimilating all the above examples, if there is one thing we can be sure of is that we know sh!t (remember this Socratic paradox - Scio me nihil scire, I know that I know nothing). Even Socrates knew what we often forget today: we do not have the entire truth. We are poking in the dark, folks. Sure, we do find something, like laws of physics or penicillin (by the way, it was discovered by pure accident) but there is so much of unknown space around these islands of information. There are many factors at play: some might say that the life is bigger than the human quest for truth can conquer, but there are also limitations of our own nature as humans: like the tendency to stick to our already formed worldview, resistance to all the information that can challenge this worldview (rebound effect), tendency to pay attention to evidence that confirms our previous beliefs (confirmation bias), tendency to do and believe things just because people in your close environment share these beliefs (peer pressure and herd behavior) and lots of other biases that we’re not even aware of (just notice how much time it takes to scroll this Wikipedia page that lists all our cognitive biases). 

It’s very hard for anyone to get out of our own head to see what is there objectively. Because even our visual processing center in the brain compare visual input on our retina to previously known information to INTERPRET what is it that we see. We are designed to rely on previous information and previous experiences. But thankfully, we also have a curiosity and sometimes a sincere sense of discovery. Sometimes we have the guts to admit that we know shit and fuck it, let’s do it all over again. And how to make sure that this time we do not just confirm what we expect to see here, but just try to see the reality as it is. 

That’s science right here. That’s why we have all these pretty and useful things like light bulbs and cars and iPhones and antibiotics and technological underwear for athletes, coronary surgery, and planes and even satellites. We are progressing from a stone age one step at a time. If we held dearly to our traditions, we would still be jumping from branch to branch. 

So to clarify, education and science is not about learning a bunch of facts (that we believe to be "THE TRUTH" right now) and then repeating them religiously. It’s about wondering, discovery, progress, questioning, learning to see shortcomings, learning to see where we can improve or what we can do to confirm or disprove some belief. It’s about theories, assumptions, ideas, and looking for the ways to verify, check, and realize them. 

That’s why we are writing these “academic papers”. Not to make you bored to death, or because your teachers are just such sadists. It’s to learn to research, explore a topic, see what we already know, and then approach it critically. Is it the whole picture? What is missing? What do the skeptics say? How can we improve? What can we do to understand more? 

And you cannot even imagine how much it depends on your disposition. If you just approach a research paper not from a position of grueling tasks that just need to be done otherwise you would not pass this subject, but from a position of the seeker of truth, of someone who wonders about the world. Here’s the topic, we will look into it and see if we can find out about this aspect of the world some more. It is the entire picture or just part of the bigger problem that depends on the factors not taken into account here? 

History papers are hard in this sense. Because you just need to retell history. But why do we learn history in the first place? To compare how humans were against how humans are now. So even in history papers you can wonder and research. That awful event happened because the conditions were so much different. People had this and that culture. They had such political institutions. They had a lack of information. They had this education. They had scarcity here or there. What ideas were floating in their collective unconscious (and conscious)? What scientists, philosophers, and public figures were idols? What was the normal daily routine of people of that time?
So many questions to ask if you do not want to merely retell the facts of history, but if you want to understand. It makes you see dangers that might be in your society today, some red flags, or it makes you appreciate what we have and achieved as humanity. 

Does the final truth exist? I don’t know. We might be changing opinions about DDT, antibiotics, radiation, and cocaine, but somehow planes are still flying. Somebody has designed a plane, this huge super-heavy steel machine that is supposed to be suspended in the air if the balance of all the forces is right, and somehow it works (almost) every time. Maybe some more principles are there, and we’re on the way of discovering them. 

So for me, the mind of a scientist or a researcher is not the mind that proclaims “I know”. If you are so smart, you would know that most people who thought “I know” were wrong. But instead, it is the mind that says “I wonder”. That says “I doubt”. That says “I need to figure this out”, or “I need to find a way to prove or refute it. 

Therefore, when you are writing an essay, don’t just retell what other people have written on the matter. Think people, think. Analyze. That’s why we have all these heuristics, tools designed to build a good paper: SEXI (statement, explanation, example, interpretation), PIE (Point out your point, Illustrate your point, Explain your point), PEE (point, evidence, explain), and many others. These are just different approaches to the same thing. If you understand that your goal is not just to write many words but exercise your analytical and critical skills, you can find your own unique approaches to structuring a paper. These are technicalities. 

But at the core of every paper should be your quest of an explorer, skeptic, thinker, analytic. Then you will produce a great paper, even if you have no ideas about formatting and such things. Even if you do not get excellent mark because your APA formatting was not up to date, you have made yourself a big favor: you have upgraded your brain, made it flexible, curious, agile. That’s a lot!

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