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What do you mean by “research”?


“Research” is a word that is tossed around quite haphazardly without really much attention to what it is really describing. The term has become an umbrella term that can range from simply Googling something online and reading a Wikipedia entry to formal experimental studies which utilize specific procedures, statistical analyses and reviews of published scientific literature.

“I’ve done the research…you are totally wrong”. This is a phrase I overheard in a conversation between two friends of my ex-wife (circa 2009) in relation to the question of the efficacy of vaccinations (not a topic I’ll delve into right now). Curious about this “research”, I asked what she meant. Her answer: “Dude, just read this…”. At which time she hands me her phone with an article from Natural News.com – not the most scientifically rigorous of sources.

My point is that her concept of research was simply looking for confirmation of her ideological stance on the internet. Quite a bit different from what I refer to as research.

I work as a researcher for the military and primarily focus on human performance improvement and human factors engineering. This type of research is quite different from her concept. We put together research proposals that put forth an idea which is based upon findings in the previously published literature. We devise methodologies to test our hypotheses and utilize statistical analyses to examine data to see if it supports our hypothesis or not. It is much more involved than simply typing in some keywords into Google.

So why is it that those two very different actions can both be categorized as research? It has much to do with our language and how words are used in specific contexts as opposed to more colloquial use. I often run into this problem when people, often in debates, toss around the term “theory”.

The word “theory” in everyday use has a much different meaning than how it is used in the context of science. We often hear someone say, “I have a theory!” to which they actually mean they have an unsubstantiated idea, an educated guess or maybe even so far as to say a hypothesis which is an untested idea or concept in science.

I think it is because of this property of the English language that many debates often end up going nowhere. Without a common ground on something as simple as vernacular nothing has the prospect of ever being resolved.

So is there some overarching reason for this discussion regarding the usage of the term “research”? Not really. It was just a passing random thought…I warned you previously these would pop up from time to time.



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