Thursday, October 20, 2011

Responses 002 (Nov 2012)

The Nov 2012 list really throws up some interesting problems. Here is Question 2 on the list: "It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." — Arthur Conan Doyle. Consider the extent to which this statement may be true in two or more areas of knowledge.

(Note: As usual, the context of this statement is not supposed to be important. For the more conscientious amongst us, this quote comes from Conan Doyle's 1891 Sherlock Holmes story, A Scandal In Bohemia, in which Holmes is bested by the lady adventurer Irene Adler.)

The context which is important, however, is our consideration of the statement in terms of what a theory is supposed to be in different areas of knowledge. Here are a few thoughts.

In most conceptualisations of the scientific method, we're supposed to build theory from empirical data or reasoning from basic principles. It's either induction or deduction, repeated and mixed up, which generates theory. It isn't considered scientific to generate theory without any data at all, since you cannot even generate a problem statement or question that is of scientific value without some initial data. Why? Because a scientific claim must be testable, and we only know what a reasonable test is if we have some data to work with.

On the other hand, let's consider the arts. We'll have to define the arts as disciplines in which something material (a text, a narrative, an artifact etc) is created in order to induce a response (almost always emotional) based on somebody's sensory perceptions. A theory in the arts can be scientific in nature, if it is an analytical theory. However, a theory about what an artist thinks art is can seem spontaneously enacted through what he does. It's when people respond to that, that data are generated. The artist may not have any obvious foundations of data on which his theory of 'this is art' is built. He might be using his emotions as a guide, for example, or his intuitions, or his faith in his own arbitrary principles.

Other disciplines fall somewhere in between. All disciplines work with data; the question is whether data must precede theory (and thus be its foundation, as in the 'grounded theory' approach beloved of some research in the human sciences) or whether theory can be constructed before any data is received. It might be a chicken-and-egg kind of problem, requiring much thought before the obvious 'chicken came first' conclusion arises.

In this statement, however, is a lot more material for debate. You would have to think about 'capital mistake' (which implies 'fatal error'), 'insensibly' (by which Conan Doyle would have meant 'subconsciously', rather than 'irrationally', I think), and 'twist' (as in apply torque to deform, but not in a literal sense).

I suspect this question will be attempted by Sherlock Holmes fans, amateur investigators, and people who just want a no-holds-barred dust-up of the old-fashioned kind. A lot of fun, a lot of risk. "Two or more areas of knowledge," forsooth.

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Blogger CS said...

I thought Q2 and Q3 appear to be opposing statements on some level. I would have picked 3 because it is slightly more general. Similar approach can be used to both questions

Monday, July 23, 2012 4:33:00 am  

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