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Research in the Digital Age, Part 1: Questions

Digital media are so vital to an informed life that it can be difficult to recall what life was like before smartphones and the internet.

With all new technology and social movements there is a cultural learning curve. We have to learn how best to live with innovations, and with the advent of instant, potentially overwhelming information right there whenever we want it, a major part of our learning curve is developing the skills to separate the good information from the garbage.

A major obstacle to gathering reliable information comes in the form of perceived authority. Sure, it would be great to get everything we need from Scientific American, The Journal of the American Medical Association, and Consumer Reports, but a broad Google search is going to give you millions of resources, most of which you will not recognize. And what about the thousands of commercials, products, remedies, vendors, schools, institutions, drug recommendations, health gurus, and books?

Research is essential to decision-making, and pitfalls are an inescapable part of research, but you can learn how to avoid them and get the information you need.

Make a List of Questions

If you want to fail fast, Google “how to get rich quick.” If you want to succeed, figure out the real questions you need to ask before you go looking for answers. Spend the time to brainstorm, and think about the sorts of questions that schemers prey on.

Go ahead and look up hopeful questions, but include negative ones as well, such as, “What are the expected costs of an online start-up?” and, “Why do restaurants fail?” If you’re thinking about selling gems or catering for parties, avoid promises that sound to good to be true. (They are.) Don’t just ask, “How do I make money selling diamonds?” Ask the opposite as well: “How do people lose money selling diamonds?”

Let’s be Sam from Ohio. He wants to go into real estate, so he looks up “average realtor income in Westlake, Ohio.” On salary.com, he learns the median income is $38,456 and that only 10% of realtors in his area earn over $58,439. Now, when some book promises he’ll make a fortune in six months, he knows better than to believe it.

Watch Out for Bias

The biggest challenges to making a useful, realistic list of research questions are our own inherent biases, particularly the hidden ones. When you have the first few questions on your list, look them over. Are you unconsciously favoring something over something else?

For example, are all your questions about money? Are you not asking questions about quality of life? Are you avoiding issues like the need to travel often, the number of hours professionals put in every week, and how much training is required?

Remember, if it were easy to spot these biases, we wouldn’t call them “hidden.” Asking opposite questions and challenging your own assumptions are vital. Are you assuming you’re not smart enough for certain things? Are you assuming education must involve massive student debt?

Include questions you think you already know the answers to. Include questions that make you uncomfortable. Concentrate on a list that is useful and exploratory, and then you’ll be able to tackle the next step: evaluating your sources.