Research is not a magical practice

May 16, 2017

Pär SegerdahlWhy does hearing about research sometimes scare us in a vertiginous way? I mean the feeling that researchers sometimes dig too deeply, that they see through what should not be seen through, that they manipulate the fundamental conditions of life.

It does not have to concern GMOs or embryonic stem cell research. During a period, I wrote about studies of human conversation. When I told people that I was working on conversation analysis, I could get the reaction: “Oh no, now I dare not talk to you, because you’ll probably see through everything I say and judge how well I’m actually talking.”

Why do we react in such a way? As if researchers saw through the surface of life, as through a thin veil, and gained power over life by mastering its hidden mechanisms.

My impression is that we, in these reactions, interpret research as a form of magic. Magic is a cross-border activity. The magician is in contact with “the other side”: with the powers that control life. By communicating with these hidden powers, the magician can achieve power over life. That is at least often the attitude in magical practices.

Is this how we view research when it scares us in a dizzying way? We think in terms of a boundary between life and its hidden conditions; a boundary that researchers transgress to gain power over life. Research then appears transgressive in a vertiginous way. We interpret it as a magical practice, as a digging into the most basic conditions of life.

The farmer who wants to control the water level in the field by digging ditches, however, is not a magician who communicates with hidden forces. Digging ditches gives you ordinary power in life: it gives control of the water level. I would like to say that research is more like digging ditches to control the water level than like engaging in magic to control life itself. Certainly, research gives power and control – but in life, not over “life itself.”

This does not mean that research does not need to be regulated; digging ditches probably needs regulation too.

The magical aura of charismatic researchers sometimes seduces us. We think they are close to the solution of “the riddle” and give them a free hand… We must be careful not to give research work a magical interpretation.

Pär Segerdahl

This post in Swedish

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