The essence of academic research

"Two small test tubes held in spring clamps" by Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

The purpose of academic research is not just to push the boundaries of knowledge, but to break free from limiting personal beliefs about the way things should be.

Instinct is useful, but the universe is more interesting than we can imagine or extrapolate from personal experience. The most important results are those that—at first—appear wrong; the counter-intuitive, the confusing, the weird and the wonderful effects nature reveals.

To prove usually means to show something to be true, but it can also mean to test. The aim of research should never be to prove your hypothesis in the sense of showing your ideas to be true, but to test them with rigour and allow yourself to be guided honestly by the data.

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

  • Richard Feynman

Rigour is essential, because weird effects can  arise from mistakes or malfunctions. Test, test, and test again before you get too excited about a new discovery. Distrust your instincts; seek out knowledgeable people who will disagree with you and seek methodologies more reliable than your beliefs.

2 thoughts on “The essence of academic research”

  1. A mental shift away from thinking that we are testing to ‘prove’ is the way to go. I find this concept is especially difficult for many psych students I tutor, as our field often has numerous theories/models about a topic.

    The lack of definite and absolutes, that can be better provided by the ‘hard sciences’ in the forms of facts and laws, certainly puts more than a few into an existential crisis spin.

    I love that we are grey (the non-sexualised non-misogynist type ~:-). It means potential, possibilities, continuums, spectrums…the universe of Personhood to explore.

    We test to learn, feed our curiousness and to understand the world a little better; not to stick a pin thru something to put it on display.

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