In today’s readings for my philosophy course, we are asked to consider:
- the meaning of truth,
- the role of trust in knowledge development,
- how I understand science, truth, and objectivity
- the contribution of knowledge development to nursing practice
Over the past few days, we have discussed the importance of positioning oneself when conducting research – and in this case, blogging. I am a PhD student at Queen’s University with the School of Nursing. Before blogging I asked my professor’s permission to use her learning activities as prompts for blogging. I also need to thank my professor and peers since engaging discussions in class help me think philosophically about topics like this one..
My perspective on this issue is heavily influenced by my experiences and observations while conducting my own research and working with my employer’s Applied Research department. Over time I have seen many improvements in applied research but feel very strongly about the conflict that can occur when if industry partner can prevent knowledge dissemination as part of the contract (it can happen, but does not always happen). I have tried to publish on a related issue before but the manuscript was rejected as it was context-specific and perhaps an unpopular opinion. My views are my own and do not represent my school or my employer. I cannot discuss any specific project I may have been involved in previously as that would breach confidentiality agreements.
When I talk about research, most of the time I am talking about basic research. Basic research is focused on a systematic way of discovering knowledge. Applied research is commercially focused and solves practical problems. Click here for a good overview of the difference. (Please note that applied research is different from action research.)
Researchers operating from a positivist or post-positivist paradigm search for the truth using objective means. In order for quality research to direct practice, it is essential that researchers are honest and unbiased (Killam, 2013). Falsifying results of a study is not only unethical, but it damages public trust, and in Medicine causes patient harm (such as with the classic example of the Wakefield study that people still believe today). If quantitative researchers do not remain objective the results cannot be trusted. The problem is that lay consumers of research often cannot tell if the researcher is being honest. That is partly why the peer-review system is in place. Being published adds credibility, meaning that people are more likely to trust and the findings (many people don’t even read the methods). However, as Porter (1995) identifies, simply being published in a peer-reviewed journal does not establish the validity of a work.
What does it mean to be honest? I believe that it is naive to think that researchers can be truly 100% objective in their work. Even the most ethical research is subject to a risk of error. As the video below describes, there are many reasons why a researcher may be consciously or unconsciously incentivised to be dishonest (CrashCourse, 2018). As Kant deduced, one’s perspective influences how we see reality whether we realise it or not (Kemerling, 1997).
Hume and Kant challenged the historical understanding of reality as something that actually can be objectively measured (Patomaki & Wight, 2000). The question of what reality is and if it can actually be measured is still debated today by researchers and philosophers. As Hanna (2004) describes, objectivity has limits related to the precision, reliability, validity, and procedures used in research no matter what paradigm you are in. Quantitative researchers should be as objective as humanly possible. Assuming that objectivity is possible, individual scientists must be able to base conclusions to sound data and logical reasoning for objectivity to exist (Jukola, 2016).
Conflicts of Interest
When authors publish, they need to declare any conflicts of interest. Declaring it helps consumers be aware of possible biases in the publication. However, I wonder, is simply declaring a conflict of interest enough if consumers are not privy to the nature of the contract between a researcher and an industry partner or funding body?
Jukola (2016) critiques the objectivity of commercialized research, pointing towards the need for functioning scientific communities to support rational thought. In this article, the following problematic practices are described:
- Assumptions are not articulated and alternative theories are not considered
- Exclusion of participant groups without articulated rationale
- Funding bias since funding dictates the questions and diseases that are researched, which means that industry interests are directing the kind of research that is being done
- Confounding variables are ignored
- This one is worth quoting “It has been claimed that in medical trials, a correlation exists between the source of the funding and the results.”
- The company sponsoring a study chooses the methods, which might mean that they are more likely to say that the product/service is good
- Publication bias since journals are more likely to publish studies that find a relationship
Of course, not all of these issues will be present in all commercialized research – that would be a gross oversimplification. However, if any of these things are occurring it undermines how objective the researcher is. Also, some of these issues are also present in basic research studies.
Believing something is true just because it is published is inherently dangerous. I would like to believe that people are more critical than that, but I have anecdotal evidence to suggest that people will believe anything that helps to confirm what they already think is true. Research is essential to informal practice. However, I do not think all research can be trusted. It is unfortunately left up to consumers to critique evidence … but especially in a busy profession like nursing, there is not a lot of time for that. That is why we need a better system for scholarly inquiry. I am thankful that the RNAO exists to try and help filter the quality of evidence.
- Would lay research consumers be able to tell how a conflict of interest impacted the research? Can commercialized research be objective? Does objectivity matter in commercialized research? If the purpose of the research is not to develop knowledge (but to improve a product), does objectivity still matter? (of course, if the point of the research is to convince others of something I would say objectivity is important)
- Is the peer-review process helping to achieve a meaningful purpose? There are so many problems with the peer review system not even covered in this post.
Hanna, J. F. (2004). The Scope and limits of scientific objectivity. Philosophy of Science, 71, 339-361.
Jukola, S. (2016). The commercialization of research and the quest for the objectivity of science. Found Science, 21, 89-103.
Kemerling, G. (1997). Kant: Experience and reality. Retrieved from http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/5g.htm
Killam, L. A. (2013). Research terminology simplified: Paradigms, axiology, ontology, epistemology, and methodology. Sudbury, ON: Author.
Patomaki, H., & Wight, C. (2000). After Postpositivism? The Promises of Critical Realism. International Studies Quarterly, 44(2), 213-237. https://doi.org/10.1111/0020-8833.00156
Porter, T (1995). Preface, cultures of objectivity, Part 1: Power in numbers. In Trust in numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life, (vii-xii; 3-8; 11-32). Princeton University Press.