This is a follow-up on my earlier post, Questionable questionnaires. In the article that I blogged about, Kevin P. Weinfurt provided two cautions to empirical bioethicists who are using questionnaires. I summarize them:

  1. Egocentrism: the all-too-human self-centeredness of the bioethicist who spent years thinking about particular ethical issues in particular ways, and who designs questionnaires as if these issues basically were real in the same way also for patients, doctors, nurses, research participants, donors…
  2. Literal-mindedness: partly because scholars have disciplined their linguistic habits, they easily overlook the possibility that people do other things with their words than literally describe what they think (e.g., when asked how they consider their chance of benefit from an experimental therapy, they may express hope or loyalty with the care team).

Today I want to highlight this remark in the article:

  • “These cautions are not in themselves new types of methodological missteps, but rather two potential underlying causes of frequently encountered missteps.”

Egocentrism and literal-mindedness are sources of methodological missteps, not further missteps. They are “pernicious habits of mind that plague all of us who are trying to understand patients, physicians, research participants, and others.”

I found this remark interesting, because it puts the emphasis on the researcher as a living person rather than on researcher behavior.

Poor sample selection, invalid inferences and other missteps occur in the behavior of researchers. Methodological rules address missteps on the same behavioral level: do this rather than that, and you’ll enter the secure path of science.

The two cautions are different. They challenge us to work on our habits of mind, on our self-awareness. Merely adopting other behaviors as researchers, which methodology typically aims towards, will not be sufficient if we refuse to face the persistent sources of the missteps within us.

It is no coincidence that the cautions are derived from the work of two philosophers, William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophy is a self-searching activity.

I take Weinfurt’s article to be saying that there is no methodologically secured path of science, and certainly not if methodology is understood only in terms of disciplining researcher behavior.

Good and honest scientific work needs to include also exercises of human self-awareness. For researchers will continue to exist as living persons, not only as disciplined performers of more or less correct behaviors.

In a sense, one might say that the two cautions are reminders of original sin.

Pär Segerdahl

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