We are used to thinking that research is either theoretical or empirical, or a combination of theoretical and empirical approaches. I want to suggest that there are also studies that are neither theoretical nor empirical, even though it may seem unthinkable at first. This third possibility often occurs together with the other two, with which it is then interwoven without us particularly noticing it.
What is this third, seemingly unthinkable possibility? To think for yourself! Research rarely runs completely friction-free. At regular intervals, uncertainties appear around both theoretical and empirical starting points, which we have to clarify for ourselves. We then need to reflect on our starting points and perhaps even reconsider them. I am not referring primarily to how new scientific findings can justify re-examination of hypotheses, but to the continuous re-examinations that must be made in the research process that leads to these new findings. It happens so naturally in research work that you do not always think about the fact that you, as a researcher, also think for yourself, reconsider your starting points during the course of the work. Of course, thinking for yourself does not necessarily mean that you think alone. It often happens in conversations with colleagues or at research seminars. But in these situations there are no obvious starting points to start from. The uncertainties concern the starting points that you had taken for granted, and you are therefore referred to yourself, whether you think alone or with others.
This thinking, which paradoxically we do not always think we are doing, is rarely highlighted in the finished studies that are published as scientific articles. The final publication therefore does not give a completely true picture of what the research process looked like in its entirety, which is of course not an objection. On the contrary, it would be comical if autobiographical details were highlighted in scientific publications. There you cannot usually refer to informal conversations with colleagues in corridors or seminar rooms. Nevertheless, these conversations take place as soon as we encounter uncertainties. Conversations where we think for ourselves, even when it happens together. It would hardly be research otherwise.
Do you see how we ourselves get stuck in an unclear starting point when we have difficulty imagining the possibility of academic work that is neither theoretical nor empirical? We then start from a picture of scientific research, which focuses on what already completed studies look like in article form. It can be said that we start from a “façade conception” of scientific work, which hides a lot of what happens in practice behind the façade. This can be hard to come to terms with for new PhD students, who may think that researchers just pick their theoretical and empirical starting points and then elaborate on them. A PhD student can feel bad as a researcher, because the work does not match the image you get of research by reading finished articles, where everything seems to go smoothly. If it did, it would hardly be research. Yet, when seeking funding and ethics approval, researchers are forced to present their project plans as if everything had already gone smoothly. That is, as if the research had already been completed and published.
If what I am writing here gives you an idea of how easily we humans get stuck in unclear starting points, then this blog post has already served as a simple example of the third possibility. In this post, we think together, for ourselves, about an unclear starting point, the façade conception, which we did not think we were starting from. We open our eyes to an assumption which at first we did not see, because we looked at everything through it, as through the spectacles on the nose. Such self-examination of our own starting points can sometimes be the main objective, namely in philosophical studies. There, the questions themselves are already expressions of unclear assumptions. We get entangled in our starting points. But because they sit on our noses, we also get entangled in the illusion that the questions are about something outside of us, something that can only be studied theoretically and empirically.
Today I therefore want to illustrate how differently we can work as researchers. This by suggesting the reading of two publications on the same problem, where one publication is empirical, while the other is neither empirical nor theoretical, but purely philosophical. The empirical article is authored by colleagues at CRB; the philosophical article by me. Both articles touch on ethical issues of embryo donation for stem cell research. Research that in the future may lead to treatments for, for example, Parkinson’s disease.
The empirical study is an interview study with individuals who have undergone infertility treatment at an IVF clinic. They were interviewed about how they viewed leftover frozen embryos from IVF treatment, donation of leftover embryos in general and for cell-based treatment of Parkinson’s disease in particular, and much more. Such empirical studies are important as a basis for ethical and legal discussions about embryonic stem cell research, and about the possibility of further developing the research into treatments for diseases that today lack effective treatments. Read the interview study here: Would you consider donating your left-over embryos to treat Parkinson’s disease? Interviews with individuals who underwent IVF in Sweden.
The philosophical study examines concerns about exploitation of embryo donors to stem cell research. These concerns must be discussed openly and conscientiously. But precisely because issues of exploitation are so important, the debate about them risks being polarized around opposing starting points, which are not seen and cannot be reconsidered. Debates often risk locking positions, rather than opening our minds. The philosophical study describes such tendencies to be misled by our own concepts when we debate medical research, the pharmaceutical industry and risks of exploitation in donation to research. It wants to clarify the conditions for a more thoughtful and open discussion. Read the philosophical study here: The Invisible Patient: Concerns about Donor Exploitation in Stem Cell Research.
It is easy to see the relevance of the empirical study, as it has results to refer to in the debate. Despite the empirical nature of the study, I dare to suggest that the researchers also “philosophized” about uncertainties that appeared during the course of the work; that they thought for themselves. Perhaps it is not quite as easy to see the relevance of the purely philosophical study, since it does not result in new findings or normative positions that can be referred to in the debate. It only helps us to see how certain mental starting points limit our understanding, if they are not noticed and re-examined. Of what use are such philosophical exercises?
Perhaps the use of philosophy is similar to the use of a key that fits in the lock, when we want to get out of a locked room. The only thing is that in philosophy we often need the “key” already to see that we are locked up. Philosophical keys are thus forged as needed, to help us see our attachments to unclear starting points that need to be reconsidered. You cannot refer to such keys. You must use them yourself, on yourself.
While I was writing this “key” post, diligent colleagues at CRB published another empirical study on the use of human embryonic stem cells for medical treatments. This time an online survey among a random selection of Swedish citizens (reference and link below). The authors emphasize that even empirical studies can unlock polarized debates. This by supplementing the views of engaged debaters, who can sometimes have great influence, with findings on the views of the public and affected groups: voices that are not always heard in the debate. Empirical studies thus also function as keys to more open and thoughtful discussions. In this case, the “keys” are findings that can be referred to in debates.
– Two types of keys, which can contribute in different ways to more open debates.
Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.
Bywall, K.S., Holte, J., Brodin, T. et al. Would you consider donating your left-over embryos to treat Parkinson’s disease? Interviews with individuals that underwent IVF in Sweden. BMC Med Ethics 23, 124 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-022-00864-y
Segerdahl, P. The Invisible Patient: Concerns about Donor Exploitation in Stem Cell Research. Health Care Analysis 30, 240–253 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10728-022-00448-2
Grauman, Å., Hansson, M., Nyholm, D. et al. Attitudes and values among the Swedish general public to using human embryonic stem cells for medical treatment. BMC Med Ethics 23, 138 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-022-00878-6
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