Truth, not Proof
A worthwhile semester-long research project unearths and delivers a new truth.
Better than anything else, wide reading develops a fresh perspective on old material worth sharing. But just as important as the number and variety of sources we gather, is our openness to their influence. For the research to have value, it must shape our point of view, not merely support it.
We have trained you to ignore your own perspective. We’ve taught you to believe that the purpose of a research project is to find evidence to support a thesis you’ve decided in advance is correct and provable. That approach will almost certainly blind you to anything worth sharing.
Commitment to a thesis shuts down the search for truth. When proving it appears to be our goal, we value only evidence that supports the thesis. Evidence that clearly contradicts the thesis we ignore or discard. Evidence that can be interpreted to support any one of several positions depending on point of view we present in the light most favorable to the thesis.
Since when did we become the servants of the thesis? We’re researching to discover, not to support what is already believed to be true.
“Proving” a Thesis
A little knowledge is dangerous. When we know just enough about a topic to have an opinion, we phrase our attitude as if it were truth.
Opponents of Planned Parenthood seem unwilling to accept that defunding the organization will do far more damage to the vast number of its beneficiaries than is worth the perceived advantage of preventing a few pregnancies.
Our prejudices have already announced themselves. We favor Planned Parenthood. We wish to teach its opponents a lesson they won’t like. The organization needs funds to deliver benefits. The pregnancy question (and with it the questions of prevented pregnancies and terminated pregnancies) are trivial by comparison. We’ll show them.
Suppose instead of trying to prove anything, we spent ten weeks testing a theory, open to persuasion, reading to learn instead of reading to defend.
The debate about defunding Planned Parenthood has become a fight over the moral high ground. The claim that the agency uses public dollars to perform abortions divides opinion into warring camps, but the evidence to support that claim is never questioned. I wonder if it’s true.
If we phrase our question this way, instead of as a thesis to be proved, we’re more likely to investigate without an agenda except to discover the actual situation in all its rich ambiguity. The search for the facts will certainly expose us to varieties of opinion designed to obscure the case. Sorting through the biases of others, we will begin to find a factual basis for our own point of view.
From taking lab science courses, we have learned that, when conducting experiments, scientists don’t know or care whether our hypotheses will prove to be true or false.
Our experiment will be successful whatever it proves. Given the conditions we establish for the experiment, physical objects will behave in a particular way. That will be the proof. Whether they behave to match our predictions is irrelevant. The experiment will fail only if its findings are inconclusive.
Begin with Hypothesis
The same is true of a Comp II research project. We begin in innocence and maintain that innocence as long as possible, until the weight of the evidence convinces us that something is true.
We have a notion that Planned Parenthood is on balance a positive social force that delivers countless benefits. We suspect that limiting its funding would be catastrophic not only for its direct beneficiaries, but for the social fabric.
We know that arguments about Planned Parenthood get hijacked by a very contentious abortion debate. Facts about what Planned Parenthood actually does, and how it’s funded, might add some clarity. We might be very wrong.
For ten weeks, we read everything we can about the benefits, costs, outcomes, disadvantages, funding mechanisms, and ethical ambiguities of the Planned Parenthood mission and practice. We find out all we can about who Planned Parenthood benefits, how many abortions it performs (if any) and under what circumstances, how much of its funding comes from taxpayers, what would happen if that funding were eliminated.
Whatever evidence we find is valuable experimental data. At the end, we arrive at an informed conclusion about Planned Parenthood’s benefits and costs.
If the evidence we gather, contrary to our prejudices, demonstrates that there’s nothing counterintuitive about defunding Planned Parenthood, we still win, because we can prove something.
Thesis Comes Last
That’s when we craft our final thesis. We name the thesis we know the evidence will support after we’ve collected and analyzed all there is to know about or narrow research topic.
We win by proving that the facts we have gathered support a meaningful thesis.
We lose if we waste the semester hunting for (and inevitably finding) evidence that can be interpreted to support the prejudices we had when our investigation began.
In the Meantime
Move boldly forward, checking your early hypothesis against the facts with every source you find, trusting in the truth of the evidence. When all is said and done, You’ll present a paper that proves whatever your thesis eventually turns out to be.
Mice on Cocaine
Researchers proved the opposite of their thesis.
Researchers have created mice that appear impervious to the lure of cocaine.
Even after the genetically engineered animals were given the drug repeatedly, they did not appear to crave it the way typical mice do, a team reports in Nature Neuroscience.
The result was startling because the scientists thought these mice would be especially susceptible to addiction. “We repeated the experiment several times to see if we had made a mistake,” Bamji says.