No one doubts the necessity of research, testing and experimentation. The reliability and validity of hypotheses, assumptions, long-standing ideas, and even some so-called “facts” need to be tried time and again to ascertain their veracity. This is particularly so when worldviews expand and frameworks grow to encompass more and more of the known universe. Yes, research is indeed important. So what do I mean when I say that we might be researching ourselves to death?
Most of us know the story of that proverbial team of road builders constructing a highway through thick forest. Their objective was to link City A to City B via that highway. The road construction gang was very experienced in road building and had the latest road-building technology and techniques at their disposal. One fine morning as they went about their work with efficient clockwork, one of the engineers had a nagging feeling. He climbed a very tall tree, took a look around, and shouted down “STOP! WRONG WAY!” The lesson of course is that if your start and end points are not what you intended, it matters not how excellent your work is in the middle, for it then becomes irrelevant. The same thing applies to research.
If the starting assumptions are fundamentally flawed, researchers would be tempted to find the data that seems to support that flawed assumption. If I assume that cetaceans are able to dive deep and surface with blinding speed without suffering the “bends”, as human divers do, because of their blood composition, then I as a researcher would be busy analyzing cetacean blood for clues that support that hypothesis. In reality, of course, we know that cetacean blood composition is of course different from that of land mammals, with a higher concentration of haemoglobin being one key difference, but that by itself is unable to answer the question of why cetaceans do not get the bends. Collapsible lungs and higher blood volume relative to tissue mass are other key factors which the researcher needs to recognize as key contributing factors. Similar tendencies develop when the end goal is to prove that a hypothesis is true instead of testing it objectively and relating the evidence to all other possible hypotheses. Excellent research methodology cannot make up for this lack of objectivity in research.
When we form our own assumptions and harbour a fear of being wrong, we will tend to bend the evidence to suit our presuppositions. That is one of the reasons why I am seldom impressed by claims that certain hypotheses or even theories have been backed by years of research. I recall the times when one of my seniors told me he had conducted a certain type of exercise for 22 years, and that it was the only way to do it. My own examination of the facts and instruction manuals told me a very different story. 22 years of doing the same type of exercise the same way may give one lots of experience, but it may be the wrong type of experience. Problem is, because it has been practised so many times for so long, people tend to think that it is true. That’s how eagles are trapped, but that’s another story.
Avoid researching yourselves to death. Even more, don’t force your people to research themselves to death just because you are too insecure to face your own fears. They deserve more from you than that!