In several recent online conversations, I have had people make absolute, declamatory statements contrary to my own beliefs, and then inform me that their positions were not arguable, because they had “done the research.” If I didn’t agree, then all I needed to do was “do the research,” and then I would have no choice but to cede my position and accept theirs. Such is the power of “doing the research,” apparently.
The problem is, though, that in none of these cases did “the research” in any way, shape or form adhere to the standards to which I myself have been held as a student, or to which, as a University administrator, I would hold students before I let them make absolute, declamatory statements at me.
So what is “research,” really?
To me, “research” is the word that we use to define a set of tools and protocols designed to help people turn subjective assumptions into objective conclusions. It can take many forms, but its fundamental requirements include:
- Intellectual rigor in seeking out credible sources, records and documents beyond those easily available in the public domain;
- A willingness to seek out and fairly consider documents and records supporting views in opposition to those of the researcher;
- An ability and willingness to compile qualitative or quantitative data using generally accepted statistical and scientific methods;
- A method for testing those data against a hypothesis, followed by an ability to have the results of those tests stand up to independent re-testing;
- An affirmation of the research data and conclusions by a body of experts in the field of research; and
- A recognition of the utility of the data compiled and conclusions drawn, as evidenced by cites and references from other researchers in the field of study.
That may be a bit academic and arcane, so perhaps a better way to frame this post would be to flip the question and ask: So, what isn’t research, really? To which I would reply:
- Using Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, Youtube or Facebook as primary source documents, since none of those portals have filters for accurately assessing the credibility of sources, and none of them index the countless proprietary scholarly, academic or scientific journals and resources that require proper library assistance to access;
- Throwing out entire sectors of the printed and online media worlds because they are “mainstream” and do not cover certain topics in the way that the researcher may wish to see them covered;
- Working in a vacuum, without the intellectual testing that comes from the healthy give-and-take of collegial debate and discourse; “iron sharpens iron,” you know;
- Reaching conclusions that are only cited or referenced by other individuals who enter the realm of research with the same viewpoint as the researcher;
- Promoting positions without having ever actually compiled, analyzed, or tested data independently, but instead relying solely on data developed by others, oftentimes without appropriate scientific or statistical rigor; and
- Using shock tactics or logical fallacies to make points in the absence of said data.
I’ve spent more time in and around classrooms over the past decade as a College and University employee and as a “non-traditional” (which means “old”) student than most folks my age have, so let me cite one personal example of what I consider to be an acceptable level of documentation and work such that, if necessary, I could go online and say “I did the research,” and have it mean something.
My Masters Paper in Public Affairs and Policy was called “Where the Air is Sweet? A Policy Evaluation of Public Broadcasting in the United States.” What went into the research behind this paper? I never tallied the total hours, but it was an immense amount of time, and it took about nine months from inception to completion of the research project, the summary of which was a 60 page, 14,000 word document with 52 end-notes and 42 specific works cited. The conclusions reached were based on two massive databases that I developed myself, one related to a large, random sample of quantitative financial information regarding the nation’s public radio and television stations, and one related to coded qualitative data related to the programming offered by the same stations over the course of a month. I also conducted extensive interviews, spent extensive amounts of time wading through proprietary scholarly literature not available to public search engines like Google, and had an academic advisor and an independent reader review and challenge my results and conclusions, which then had to be presented to a board of faculty members at the college for acceptance. Perhaps most noteworthy, after conducting my research, I reached conclusions that were different from the assumptions I made going into the project, rather than discarding information that didn’t support my preconceived notions in the field.
So if you and I entered into a conversation about public broadcasting in the United States today, I would feel reasonably confident about making some absolute, declamatory statements, and telling you “I did the research,” because I actually did. There are very few other areas, though, where I feel that I could ever take such a position of authority, with the facts and data available to back up my positions.
If you haven’t done a comparable level of work to that described above, then you really have no right to dismiss my positions or those of others who may disagree with you by saying “These are the facts, because I did the research.” That’s insulting to people who have actually conducted real research, and it undermines your arguments, because you can’t really defend them with any objective, testable data or facts.
Which is not to say, of course, that you can’t offer your subjective positions so that we can debate them. I welcome that! I love to argue! The world is a mushy place, and most of the interesting stuff that engages us on a daily basis is unquestionably subjective and subject to debate. Easily 98%+ of everything I ever write or say is subjective, and open to discussion, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Engage me! I like that! But if you disagree with me, I promise I won’t slam the door in your face and dismiss your position, citing “research” that I didn’t actually conduct.
Please extend me the same courtesy when we have conversations in virtual or real space, okay?