Thursday, 22 October 2009

Research, Knowledge and Uninformed Opinionatedness

Last Saturday, Dr Jenny Mattsson defended her PhD dissertation The Subtitling of Discourse Particles. A corpus-based study of well, you know, I mean, and like, and their Swedish translations in ten American films (abstract and full text available here) at Göteborg University. Now the day before the event, the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten (GP) ran a short interview piece with her, entitled "Hon forskade sex år på småord" (Eng. trans. She researched small words for six years), which came across as somewhat odd.

To understand this oddity, I should say a few things up front.
1) Göteborgs-Posten is one of the major Swedish newspapers, especially on the western side of the country, what with it being based in Göteborg.
2) Göteborg has one of the country's biggest universities, which is by no means strange, considering it is the second biggest city in the country.
3) GP no longer reviews PhD dissertations within the humanities (with the exception for the odd dissertation on literature).

Bearing all this in mind, and for the moment leaving aside the obvious criticism against this being the case, I would like to return to the interview piece. The title itself sets a rather nasty tone (some might call it passive-aggressive) and throughout it becomes rather obvious what the interviewer wants his subject to say; that she has wasted her time and the tax payers' money researching small words (otherwise known as discourse particles) for the time period in question. Because clearly this is wasteful research, right? Joakim Lundgren at GP at least seems fairly sure of it. The question of course being how he knows this. Did he actually read the piece? It does seem unlikely, to be frank, and if anything it is more likely that he has read (or perhaps browsed through) the abstract, and from that formed a rather fixed opinion. An opinion which he then carries into the interview under the less than successful guise of objectivity. The piece as presented on-line is then followed by reader commentaries (the obvious option in this day and age), set off with the slogan "Tyck till! Behöver småorden uppmärkas mer?" (Eng. trans. What's your opinion? Do small words need to get more attention?), and the result, not very surprising, is not nice. Rather it is, at least in part, uninformed and quite ugly.

Do not get me wrong. A strong debate is good. As is a diversity of opinions. But when the opening argument is uninformed and opinionated, how can a good debate ensue? Especially when the original piece is slanted to such a degree that most readers will be following the suggested path laid down by Lundgren. And then it is very easy to say that this is wasteful research (as many people seem to think most research outside of medicine and technology is).

I am not saying that "wasteful" research does not exist. Of course, it does. The question is whether we can easily decide what is valuable research and what is not. And when. Many people like to say that the humanities and the social sciences are less valuable, more or less simply because they are harder to apply in a utilitarian fashion. But I am sure that a lot of those people would be shocked if they knew some of the research being done in medicine or technology too. Because some of that might look wasteful to the uninformed eye as well. Not to mention that some of it may be wasteful... as of yet. I am convinced that a lot of these people, if left in charge of research funding and left uninformed, might well have put a stop to the discovery of penicillin. I mean, why do research on mould, right?

A few weeks back, blogger Tom Karlsson wrote a blog post (in Swedish) in response to a newspaper column by another journalist, Richard Swartz, in Dagens Nyheter, another Swedish paper (found here). The column was obviously a cry of "sour grapes" concerning newspaper journalism losing ground to uninformed blogging (though not without its serious points about problems in newspaper journalism), which quite obviously and rightly irritated my blogging friend quite a bit. Because while there may well be reason to lament the loss of money invested in serious journalism and news analysis (of various kinds) at the newspapers today, this is largely the newspapers' own fault. And GP's piece mentioned above shows this very clearly. Because if a serious newspaper moves into uninformed and opinionated writing, which they then, in a very populistic fashion, open up to something less akin to a debate and more rightly described as pure opinionatedness to a large degree; then where are we heading?

If the individual cost of doing research is being ridiculed for one's work, not because it is bad, not even because somebody has critically gone over the work and found it wanting, but simply because somebody who cannot be bothered to actually read the work is opinionated in an unfavourable way (which is not to say that opinionatedness is any better if favourable, though clearly more easily digested and less offensive); then who do we expect will ever want to do research? And societies need a healthy and diversified research climate, within all branches of academic knowledge (and perhaps beyond).

Now the cost of useful research in any society is a lot of research, and a lot of that research will not in and of itself have a utilitarian purpose. However, we cannot judge everything by its utilitarian purpose, partly because of the fact that not being able to see the present utilitarian application of something at the present time does not equate that we will not be able to do that at a future point in time. But more importantly, how will we ever be able to know beforehand which research will provide us with useful answers? And useful to whom? For what purposes? And in what sense? Clearly these things need to be constantly discussed and argued, but in an informed manner. They need not be hung up as public spectacle and ridiculed by uninformed, opinionated people posing as objective professionals or people trusting the judgement of such people.

I am reminded of something said at a seminar at this year's Book Fair in Göteborg by Sven-Eric Liedman (Professor Emeritus of the History of Ideas at Göteborg University). In a discussion, Liedman brought up the importance of public fora and public debate, but pointed to a problem in today's society, namely that we tend to overemphasise the existence of such debate rather than the quality of it. Liedman made the point that we live in a time when it is very easy for anyone to start a blog and write a blog post, which may then in turn set off a debate or discussion in the comment section. But if the first post, the root of the debate, is merely a set of uninformed opinions, where will that leave the debate? Especially, if it merely reiterates the presentation of opinions, albeit it different in various ways and degrees.

Now, it might be easily assumed that Liedman's critical statement echoes that of Swartz's column in DN, but I am not convinced that that is the case. Swartz seems, somewhat weirdly (given his own comment that there is always a reader who knows and has understood more than the journalist/writer), set in seeing the blogs in and of themselves as part of the problem, whereas Liedman's caution rather seems to suggest that we need to consider any form of debate or discussion in qualitative terms; to consider where it stems from and what knowledge it rests upon.

As such, it is not the medium itself which should be blamed for the quality of the debate involved, but rather how the debate is set up. And on this account Lundgren's piece in GP (and by default GP itself for running the piece) failed miserably. Because nothing much good can come from uninformed opinions in the long run.

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