On empirical research and its method

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Science is, arguably perhaps, a conduit to enlightenment. By putting hypotheses to the test, by means of meticulous measurement and thoroughgoing observation, the factual is separated from the doxastic. The way it frames its internal arguments is such that the common cause of all proponents of mutually exclusive positions is ultimately pursued. Honest participants to a scientific debate will have to be delighted to see the issue settled even if their cherished view is eventually found implausible or incorrect, for their uniting objective is to approximate the truth, not cling on to their darling opinions. This ethos is observable through science’s historical evolution and is deeply embedded in such rules of conduct as the archiving and full disclosure of data together with its underlying methodology.

The inquiry into reality then revolves around an ongoing dialogue. Certain general guidelines to the structuring of a thesis have been identified, which provide a basis for rigorous and transparent argumentation. It is not a matter of being antagonistic towards other participants to the dialogue, but of contributing to it, correcting and/or being corrected in the process. Rebuttal of a thesis does not count as a loss for science, but as an instance of progress towards the truth, since that which could hold one captive is sorted out. Dogma has no place in a context where cascades of facts stand in stark contradiction to it. The formulation of a scientific proposition does not transfigure into the justification of itself. It is but a means to gain a better grasp on reality. That is the objective.

To become a scientist one must manifest an eagerness to test the validity of their tenets by means of factual experimentation. The practice of sharing one’s data enhances the validation/falsification of the project. Nothing that justifies certain positions is posited as genuinely mysterious. Much can be surmised and hypothesised, but no definitive conclusion is predicated on such a premise.

Be as it may, doing science does not equate to an immediate and irreversible transition from dogmatism to dialectic. It too can foster types of obsession with tendencies that essentially are contradictory to it. A typical example is the misrepresentation of the empirical method, encapsulated in an aphorism of the sort: “I am an empiricist — I only use facts not theories”. Such language is indicative of a researcher that has yet to consider the qualities of their modus operandi. The statement represents a contradiction, for it presumes that the very instrument of empirical research, is a priori empirical.

The method per se is a set of conceptual tools and techniques which are meant to provide the abstract framework in which predefined_ taxonomies of classifiable data will be placed. The formulation of testable hypotheses, the conception of the parameters germane to the data against which they will be examined, as well as the formation of theories therefrom which broaden the horizons for further empirical research, are all essential to the scientist’s work. The very notions of e.g. _testability and falsification are products of theoretical exploration, rather than “concrete facts” themselves. The commonality of them all consists in their partaking of the intelligible magnitude of [our] reality.

Data is not manifestable as totality, but as a particularised presence that derives from a degree of abstraction. By the operation of the intellect one is capable of isolating parts from the whole of sense impressions and to then proceed with the discernment of concepts that render reasonable such instances of the continuum. Orders of abstractions emerge by the ongoing definition of abstract patterns; by the effort of tracing what is common in the multitude.

Not only is a certain sensible object distinguishable from others that feature vastly or slightly different properties than it — with “object” and “property” also having conceptual delineations between them — but several representations of objects that resemble one another can engender a higher concept that encompasses them all. “Fruit” does not exist as such. It is an abstraction that encapsulates what is common in the multitude among a variety of objects, say, apple, orange and banana. Yet “fruit” is discernible from “animal” which would be another abstraction denoting a group of objects with common qualities (for more: Implicit properties in objects).

The very elaboration of the factors that inform the process of retrieving a given class of measurable and structured information occurs at the conceptual level. Hypotheses and theories, which are contributive to scientific progress, are themselves intelligible presences. To venture forward in search for data, one must first have formulated a coherent nexus of ideas on what it is they are to look for. Not a complete preconception, an anticipation of the objects-to-be-discovered or the categories-to-be-vindicated, but a clear sense of direction. This is not a one-off task, occurring at some arbitrary “starting point” of science. It is integral to research and is subject to subsequent findings, which then set the foundations for new conceptions and so on.

It is the objects of inquiry that partake of the sensible magnitude of reality — that are graspable through the faculties of sense — not the method of inquiry as such.

The crass misunderstanding of the empirical method is not the only kind of attitude that can foster varying degrees of ill thought obstinacy. False certainty in the validity, application and ramifications of certain findings is another possible scenario. It is underpinned by the failure of the researcher to reflect on the rigour and comprehensiveness of all the underlying features of their data. The outcome of the research then is the product of an incomplete conceptualisation of the case’s constitution.

What was discerned as a concatenation of intelligible objects with an overarching commonality, which served as the vantage ground for the analysis of classified sense impressions, was but a fraction of what needed to be discerned in order to quantify and to document the fullness of the [inter]operable facts peculiar to the case. At a surface level, the practice does not have to deviate from the norms of science. It merely suffers from its inadequacy to properly address what it seeks. The gist is that it is not enough to shed light on an otherwise obscure area of research, but to make sure that doing so does not generate illusions.

Not so rarely, a researcher parses piles of data to deliver conclusions that provide a degree of certainty; certainty which, upon further examination, is found to have been ephemeral. Correctives may not come immediately. Yet the very possibility of them being propounded ought to serve as a reminder for maintaining a dubitative and inquisitive disposition. Such is not always the approach though, especially in types of research that are driven by ulterior motives or implicit bias. Geometric portrayals of information, perhaps in conjunction with academic pedigree, may provide a patina of science on a given piece of research that could otherwise conceal the profound inaccuracy of the project. The collateral damage may then be caused by a series of acts that stand as the continuation of such “science”. This would not be a problem germane to science, but to the use _and application _made thereof. It nevertheless provides reasons for contemplating on the mechanisms that can prevent and preempt obscurantist tendencies.

On the academic front, controversies may also arise at the fringes of what is contextually testable. Available evidence may not be in a position to furnish support to research beyond its scope. The scientist is then brought to the point where they will either come to a standstill or proceed with formulating hypotheses in a relative vacuum, with the intention of creating an heuristic device with which to gather the new data necessary for validation/falsification. Strictly speaking, this is not a whimsical “leap of faith”. It is part of the scientific method: the initial phase of a longer process. It heralds the start of a scientific program that will eventually be found [in]capable of producing the results it needs.

In recognition of the temporary status of non-testable hypotheses, the forward-looking scientist is to remain vigilant of the method of empirical research, so that any non-verifiable claim is recognised qua_ assertion._ The arguments may indeed be plausible, their tacit conclusions persuasive, at least in so far as they appear to be in line with positions grounded on evidence. Even so, their proximate correctness or falsity remains to be determined in an ex post fashion.

To that end, the attachment of certainty on speculative propositions, is to remain subject to close scrutiny. The theoretical work then becomes one of refinement and restraint. Refinement in the various facets of the program; restraint in the scope of speculation. The risk of derailment into mysticism lies in powerful tendencies to ignore the starting point and to become dismissive of certain elements of it. However, should the non-testable status of such ventures be recognised as temporary and their claims presented as non-factual, then their contribution to the broader scientific enterprise can be beneficial in either confirming what was held as plausible or in providing the impetus for further research in areas not considered theretofore.

Use of intelligible objects, regardless of their mode or specific qualities, does not necessarily stand as a deviation from science. It rather is among its core features: the method that informs the practice, with the two operating in tandem. All instruments of empirical research can be revised. Specific parts be modified, complemented or even substituted by new ones. Improvements may be made, so that they deliver greater clarity and higher precision. These may occur in the context of the overall debate central to science. The openended-ness of the process is a vector for progress, while the thesis-antithesis-synthesis dynamic sustains alertness. Against this backdrop, dogma is to be blotted out by science’s own mechanisms; including the tendencies for misguided stubbornness that might be generated within or because of certain presumptions in research. As for the broader community, the overarching theme of remaining dialectical is what shall keep doxastic passions at bay, not the valorisation and exaltation of every pronouncement issued or rubber stamped by an authority.

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