How Do You Know They’re Right?

As we all re-enter the academic world after a long summer of (presumably) very little brain engaging activity, it seems like an appropriate time to address some of our bad academic habits. One of which is the treatment of academic research as objective fact, a habit which, though understandable, is potentially harmful to the quality of our work. The aim of much academic work is ultimately to be right, but this binary view of fact or fiction can result in detrimental approaches that reduce complex topics to simplistic conclusions. Academics themselves are considered beacons of knowledge to be respected and trusted, rather than fallible hu- man beings with the potential to be wrong. Therefore, as this Martinmas semester begins, it’s time for students to recognise the error of their ways and tackle these problems head on. Arguing is the basis for many arts subjects. Research, writing, and aca- demic work in general is all based on the ability to make a strong and con- vincing argument. We refer to them as arguments, rather than opinions, because they are supposed to hold a certain level of academic weight, re- quiring evidence and logical justifica- tion. However, regardless of the label applied, this implies a certain level of subjectivity that often gets neglected by students who take the academic’s status as a sign that they are to be trusted rather than questioned. I’m sure many of us are guilty of view- ing our citations as evidence that backs our argument rather than just to credit ideas that have already been convincingly defended in the rest of the essay. The add-well-respect- ed-name-and-stir approach is nev- er ideal, but there are times when you can’t help but think “if this very smart person agrees with me then I can’t be wrong.” Deciphering opinions from facts becomes increasing- ly difficult when ac- ademics are trained to frame their argu- ments in such a way that it is hard to disagree with. The way in which aca- demics try to per- suade their readers is impressive, but can also be confus- ing for students who are trying to form their own arguments after accumulating the views of multiple academics. My own experience in first year History was one of changing my argument after every new article I read because the historians, despite coming to different conclusions, all seemed to be right. This is where critical analysis comes in, and though it is hard to develop, it is essential for all students to read between the lines of an academic’s work to reveal the cleverly disguised holes in their argument. It is not only arts subjects that require this kind of critical engagement with research. Scientific research is in many ways even harder to engage with critically, as the natural tendency to view it as objective and empirical discourages questioning. Scientists don’t make arguments, they prove hypotheses, but students need to look beyond this to examine how this research is being presented and evaluate the assumptions being made. Although there are many provable scientific facts, they can often be presented in such a way that they promote a certain world- view. A lack of research can also be indicative of scientific bias, as it shows which subjects are prioritised in various ac- ademic fields. Medical science is becoming increasingly aware of its own racial and gen- der biases as the majority of its work is based on studies con- ducted by and for cisgender white men. Looking be- yond results to place them in a wider societal and historical context is a challenge but it is one that needs to be met to ensure that mistakes are not repeated. In all subjects, it is necessary for us to be critical of the research we are presented with and to consider why that research has been con- ducted in the first place. Though for some subjects it is necessary to aim for neutrality, it is important to recognise that all research is con- ducted by imperfect and non-neutral human beings. The personal imprint of the individual is imbued in every piece of research, no matter how hid- den. We know from the subjects we choose to study that there is a motivation behind it and these motivations should be recognised and valued as influential in the research process. As a student, it can be challeng- ing to not to feel inferior to all of the people whose research you are using. And it is fair to assume that you do probably know less about the subject than they do, but this should not stop us all from critically thinking about the work we are presented with, and introducing nuance into our views of fact and fiction. Researcher bias does not completely invalidate the work and it is more legitimate to recognise bias than simply ignore it and hope that it makes an argument or conclusion more convincing. Relying on a researcher’s name or status as evidence that you are correct is a problematic and honestly lazy way to go through university (even if it is extremely tempting at midnight when you’re desperately trying to complete an assignment). The desire to be right is both natural and understandable, but students need to recognise that the best way to find the “right” answer is to critically assess all research from your own perspective and to weigh up all the evidence and arguments for yourself.

Illustration: Sarah Knight

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