How to Research a Controversial Topic


We’ve all seen those articles…the polarizing ones which, once shared, evoke intense feelings, passionate words, and judgment. I’ve seen and experienced how these sorts of articles — which are hallmarked by strong emotions, not strong evidence — can wreak havoc.

From politics to parenting, controversial topics can spark a damaging fire, and the fire is fueled by deeply opinionated sources.

As parents, there are endless polarizing topics that people are passionate about: birth, circumcision, discipline, gender roles, infant feeding, infant sleep, schooling, screen time, vaccinations, just to name a few. There are articles and podcasts and people’s experiences that argue for and against every single topic, and shame is too often used as a cheap form of rhetoric.

Everybody has an argument. Everybody has statistics. Everybody has a horrible story to use to attack the opposing view. It is overwhelming. And when it comes to making decisions about what to do for ourselves and our families, it’s hard to know where to look for information. There’s political propaganda, sponsored studies, manipulated statistics, mis-informed journalists, media-bias, well-intending ignorants, and ill-intending liars out there.

How do we even begin to investigate a controversial topic?


My Experience

I know the struggles of researching controversial subjects. I have two bachelors degrees and a master’s degree, and yet I’ve done my most copious and exhaustive research outside of the classroom, investigating issues that directly affect me and my little family.

The first subject I thoroughly investigated was birth control. A friend challenged me on the ethics of a decision I was about to make blindly, and, as a result, I embarked on an extensive, frightening, liberating research project that earned me no college credit, but greatly impacted how I live my life.

Since, I have researched many topics (from co-sleeping to spanking) in order to make informed decisions for me and my family. At times, my research has caused me to shift my opinions. Other times, it has reinforced what I had believed to be true.

But the journey of digging and looking for myself has been extremely valuable, and I am so grateful for putting in the arduous, at times painful, work  because I am confident about the decisions I have made. I know that I have not been merely swayed into believing or doing things a certain way; I have decided on it.

And this “retired” English teacher would like to share with you some tips on how you can do it yourself.

I have also written a FREE Research Guide based off of this blog post to help provide structure, order, and guidance to your research journey.





Before You Research

Before you push up your shirt-sleeves and delve into a particular topic, there’s some stuff you should figure out. Get yourself a journal or open a new Google Doc and start here:


Reflect on your reason for researching – Why are you looking into this topic in the first place? What, if anything, is at stake for you?

Example: I am researching the issue of infant sleep because my child does not sleep through the night and I’ve been advised to sleep-train him. 


Generate a list of questions – What questions are you hoping to have answered? Keep adding to this list as you go, as more questions are sure to arise as you research.

Example: What types of sleep training methods are out there? What is the cry-it-out method? Is it safe for a child to cry-it-out? What are the potential risks of sleep training? What are the potential consequences of continuing to go to my child when he wakes up? How important is infant sleep? How important is maternal sleep?


Identify your own beliefs, biases, fears, etc. – What are your current beliefs or opinions on the topic at hand? What may make you biased for or against certain types of information in this topic? What, if any, fears do you have about this topic?

Example: I believe that I’ve established a bad habit by nursing my baby back to sleep when he wakes. I’m afraid he will never sleep through the night. I recognized that I am feeling pressured to let my child cry it out, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it. I tend to do what people tell me to do, so this is difficult for me. I am afraid I will do the wrong thing, whichever decision I make. 


Identify the opposing views on the argument. The, determine which view is the most popular or widely accepted. There is likely a reason behind its popularity, even if you’re unsure of why.

Example: There are people who for the cry-it-out method, others who advocate for other forms of sleep training, and some who are against any sleep training at all. I think while not everyone is pro cry-it-out, the most widely accepted view is that babies need to be sleep trained.


Identify any potential motives behind each side – Why might each side hold the stance they do?

Example: I think people who advocate for sleep training may do so because that’s what they did with their children and saw a positive result (the child slept). Also, some experts have an ability to make money by advising people in how to sleep train (I feel like I keep seeing advertisements for books and seminars on it). I think people who argue against sleep training do it out of a deeply held belief system about infant development. These experts, too, could make money off of their findings.


Plan to investigate both sides of the argumentWhat kind of sources might support each side of the argument (articles, books, podcasts, scientific studies, informational booklets, etc.). What experts can you look into? What people in your life may have personal experience related to the topic?

Example: I’d like to start by identifying what kinds of sleep training methods there are. Then, I’d like to look into Ferber and his work. I’d also like to see scientific studies about the results of sleep trained vs. non sleep-trained babies. On the other side, I’d like to look into Dr. James McKenna and Dr. Sears who both seem to have a lot to say about infant sleep and both discourage sleep training. I’d like to talk to my sister-in-law about how it went sleep training her children, and my neighbor who still wakes up with her toddler. 


Get organized – Whether it’s a file folder or a Google Doc, find a space where you can keep and annotate your information. You can either print out information, or keep an index of websites you’ve researched. Also, keep a journal of sorts to jot down your personal thoughts and reflections along the way.



Find Credible Resources

While the Huffington Post, Motherly, and news articles can be a good starting point and can help you generate questions, you have to get past them. Find and read the scientific studies they reference (and be wary if they don’t actually link you to them). Read or listen to interviews with credentialed experts.

And don’t forget the credible experiences of people you know and love. While these aren’t going to be peer-reviewed, the input of someone you know can greatly enhance your understanding of the topic. Ask your community for input.


A Word on the Art of Persuasion

According to the ancient wisdom of Aristotle, there are three main appeals in rhetorical arguments: ethos, pathos, and logos.

Ethos is the ethical appeal. The speaker ought to establish himself as a credible, trustworthy source who is looking into your best interest in order to persuade you. You will need to discern between those which are credible and those who are only pretending.

Pathos is the emotional appeal. We all are greatly influenced by our feelings, and the speaker will use anecdotes, evocative language, and tone to earn your sympathies and sway you to his side of the argument and move you to action. While researching, however, you ought to be asking if the emotions are overwhelming the more important appeal: logic.

Logos is the logical appeal, and Aristotle’s favorite. This is where the heart of the argument lies. The speaker ought to appeal to reason, providing strong support for his argument. Check for data, stories, and common sense. Be sure that the information is presented in a natural way, not manipulated to appeal to pathos (especially statistics, which are easy to be mistreated).


As You Investigate Each Source

Identify the argument and its audience – What is this source arguing for? Against? Who is their target audience?

Establish the author’s credibility – ethosWho is presenting this information? Can you trust their character? Why are they presenting this argument? Does this source have an ulterior motive? Remember that the general media, non-profit organizations, the government, religious organizations, science, and businesses each have their own values, goals, and agenda. Consider the information through any corresponding lens. You need to determine if this source is credible.

Analyze the emotional appeal – pathosWhat tone does the author (or speaker) convey? How is this source trying to make me feel? What is this source encouraging me to do (subliminally or blatantly)? The emotional appeal is a powerful part of any argument. However, sometimes the emotional appeal takes over the content itself. Try to look past it and find the actual information being presented.

Determine if the argument is logicallogosWhat evidence is being used to defend the argument? Is there ample evidence?Is there quality information being presented, or is their argument being hijacked by its emotional appeal? Are statistics and numbers being used and understood in their intended way, or are they being manipulated? Is there any suspicion of cherry-picking? Does their argument make reasonable sense?

Cross-reference sources – If studies, books, or interviews are cited, do your best to find them. Check to be sure the source is referencing the information correctly (and if they’re not, the initial source is unlikely credible). If possible, find out if the articles or scientific studies are sponsored or backed by a particular group.

Ask an expert for help – Don’t know how to navigate through a scientific study? Ask someone you know who excels in a science. Unsure of what a medical package insert means? Ask a nurse or doctor you trust. Utilize friends and acquaintances who may be able to help you understand and process information.

Follow your gut – At the end of the day, your instincts serve you. If your gut says a source is not credible, set it aside.



After You Research Each Source

Reflect on the information gained – If you can, annotate the source or keep a journal. Write down your thoughts or discuss with a confidant. How did the source serve you? What did you learn? What was your reaction to the source? To the information?  If it answered any of your questions, record the answers.

Ask more questions – Jot down any new questions you may have uncovered. Follow your instincts, and go down rabbit holes, if they feel important to you. Prepare to dig some more.


When You Feel You’ve Arrived at a Conclusion

Make informed decisions – The great gift to the diligent researcher is being informed. Even if your conclusions were not what you had hoped, even if you end up feeling more confused than before, even if you feel crappy about what you had learned, you are no longer ignorant. You did your due diligence to investigate and seek truth, and now you are more likely to make a decision based off of your personal values. And you can feel more confident in your decisions because they are yours.


Personal Conclusion

Many years ago, after I had compiled a one-inch binder of articles and studies about birth control — after I had cried about the fact that I would not be, in good conscience, able to enjoy the convenience of hormonal contraception — I went to my OBGYN. When she challenged me on why I wouldn’t be taking birth control, I told her I had done tons of research, and that I believed it to be unethical for me to do so.

Unfortunately, she continued to pressure me into it, even arguing that “It will ruin your sex life,” and forcing me to leave her office with a sample pack. In doing so, she destroyed her ethos, for I no longer believed she was looking out for my best interest.

While the experience was stressful, I am grateful for it. It made it easier for me to feel confident in my decision. And I have never once regretted it, especially as I went on to learn more and hear the testimonies of friends and acquaintances.

I hope that you may find such confidence after your research, dear reader.


Don’t forget this FREE research guide to assist you in your research. May it help make your journey a bit easier.

Controversial Topic Research Guide




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