Friday, November 19, 2010

How to Tell the Truth

A PhD student recently explained to me that her difficulties with academic writing stem from her being "too honest". She was certain that the relevant journals would not publish what she "really thought" about the central issues of her field. This elicited what I still think is a profoundly insightful remark from me.

Maybe, I proposed, she simply does not know how to tell the truth. She may be as honest as she likes, but how does she know she is competent to speak truthfully about what she knows? She may want to tell the truth, that is, but she may not be any good at it. After I said it, it occurred to me that good academic writing is simply the truth well-told. That is, the art of academic writing is the art of telling the truth. Research, after all, is intended to discover truths and research writing is intended to write them down.

The naturalistic fallacy is the error of sliding from "is" to "ought" and we might say that the "intentional fallacy" is the error of imagining that there is an easy path from "ought" to "do". In literary criticism, after all, we make this mistake when we imagine that what the author intended to say, rather than what the author actually said, determines the meaning of a text. That is, we assume that the author succeeded in realizing the intention—that we can pass easily from "do" to "succeed". What we forget is precisely that writing is a difficult business and that we may fail to express what we honestly set out to say.

The fact that we know what the right thing to do is does not guarantee that we will do it, and certainly not that we will do it well. Honesty, i.e., the desire to tell the truth, does not guarantee mastery, i.e., the ability to tell the truth. You spend your studies developing that ability. Indeed, even late in life, when working on a particular set of problems, researchers are only in part setting out to "discover" the truth. Much of the work required of a particular research project goes into finding a way to speak it. It is by no means easy.

Here's a simple way to appreciate the difficulty. Suppose you are visiting a foreign country and you don't speak the local language. Obviously, your honesty will not get you by. That is why it is so useful to think of research as a second language; it reminds you that you are learning how to talk in a way that you do not already know how to talk. The honesty you manifest in your first language, must now find expression in another one. It will take time before you can confidently say what you mean. Whether you intend to lie or speak the truth, you will need a new set of skills.

It is of course true that our personal opinions are not necessarily "publishable", but I think it is a mistake to think that our honesty, as such, is a barrier to publication. Rather, think of telling the truth in a particular area as a difficulty that your doctoral training is equipping you to face.


Jonathan said...

Learning a language, research as a 2nd language, is indoctrination into certain consensus beliefs in a sub-field. After being indoctrinated (professionalized) you can be honest because the main differences will be minor.

Is the student saying she doesn't really buy into the whole paradigm of the field? That's a form of honesty hard to take from someone at a junior level. Even if she is right, she will be told she doesn't have the experience / evidence to make that case. It can seem immature until she can beat them at their own game.

Thomas said...

There are lot of areas in management studies that relate directly to activism around issues of social justice, labour policy, environmentalism, business ethics, etc. Some people come to academic research after having been practitioners or activists and therefore with a great deal of "insider" knowledge. Unfortunately, that knowledge is, by the nature of the thing, also rather anecdotal. They came to academia (sometimes without having made this quite clear to themselves) to qualify their experience as proper knowledge.

So they have to learn the difference between their own certainty about something and the means by which what they "know" can be demonstrated to their peers in scholarship. In this conversation with the student, I had already explained that she should decide what contribution she wants to make to her "cause". Does she want to expose the immediate scandal (which is not really an "academic" pursuit)? Or does she want to document, at a deeper level, the underlying forces that impede progress for her brothers and sisters "in arms"?

As to "indoctrination", I think it is important to distinguish between your own beliefs and the reigning orthodoxy. In literary studies, I imagine, there is a difference between the poems you "like" and the poems that are "important". Even if you want to promote your own tastes, you have to do it with an awareness (and appreciation) of dominant tastes. That's the only way to bring about an effective corrective.