The Nature Of Research As A Practice

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Tuesday, 5.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Creativity requires input, and that’s what research is. You’re gathering material with which to build. – Gene Luen Yang

I’ve never written a scientific paper and I’ve never written a book. I’ve created enough material to fill papers and books but that’s not the same thing. And that got me thinking about why we write and what we’re trying to achieve.

First, who are you writing for? I write this blog primarily for myself – how can I figure out what I think until I put it down and see it for myself? An academic paper, on the other hand, is written primarily for the editor and reviewers. You’re trying to fit your story into a universe controlled by them, so you have to create something they’re happy with. The eventual audience for your creation may be a community of peers but the gatekeepers decide whether your work goes in front of them or not.

If you put a proposal for a book in front of a publisher what matters is not the content or the quality but the potential for sales. If you are well known and have a ready audience then publishers will fall over themselves to offer you a deal. If you are not then it’s going to be harder to get someone to buy into your pitch.

Of course, we don’t need to worry about intermediaries in the age of the Internet. You can create and publish material at zero cost – but you still have the difficulty of finding an audience to read what you write. Some people get around this by finding what people want and giving them that – along with some help pointing them in the right direction. The measure of success is sales – you create what will sell.

It turns out that you’re always writing for a reason, whether it’s for yourself, for an audience or for the money. But whatever you’re creating you’re going to have to do some research.

And this is where the practice of research becomes an important thing to understand. A modern approach towards research comes down to the collection of details – of specific data in a situation of interest. We’re gathering what early scientists referred to as “particulars”. Thing of these like collecting droplets of water. The problem is that we’re never quite sure what these droplets are going to form. Will we get a puddle, will the droplets join a river, an ocean? Or will they simply hit the ground and evaporate, leaving no trace at all?

We gather details so that we can study them hoping that they will make some sense in the grand scheme of things. We share what we’ve found in papers and essays expecting that the insights we have coupled with the insights others have will create new and useful knowledge. Or maybe the work will be forgotten, lying in wait to be rediscovered in another time and place.

This is a constant process of slow and careful collecting followed by critical comparison and analysis to produce new material that can be studied and further the process of knowledge building. Everything we create will be discarded or torn apart and recreated again and again.

In Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance the main character, Phaedrus, sees this process of tearing down and rebuilding happening with theory. It seems funny at first and then he realizes that it strikes at the heart of the idea that there is eternal truth. If scientific theories are torn down – if Newton’s ideas about the way objects are is ripped apart by quantum theory which in turn is replaced by string theory – then we really only know something until something comes along to replace it. Truth is no longer eternal – it’s just what’s accepted until it’s replaced.

That makes me wonder about old books – especially the religious ones. Those tomes are supposed to reveal ideas that will guide humanity for all time. What we see, however, is that large chunks of what’s in them is either wrong or irrelevant. But people get very upset if you suggest that their reading material is out of date. Instead they’d rather torture the material into being relevant.

The practice of research is a state of mind. One that looks for the detail and collects “particulars” rather than leaping to grand explanations. It is the process of becoming comfortable with “not knowing”, being relaxed around uncertainty. Your ability to know that you don’t know it all is what will help you stay open to seeing what’s really out there.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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