Written by Dr. Hannes Nel
Do people still care about the truth?
Did people ever care about the truth?
Are opinions more important than facts?
And what will the implications be if the truth is no longer important, and opinions are more important than facts?
I discuss the principles of ethics in research in this article.
Ethics are typically associated with morality, that is matters of right and wrong. You need to know, understand and accept the general consensus amongst academic researchers about what is acceptable and not acceptable in the conduct of scientific inquiry. The following principles are fundamental to an ethical approach to research:
- Research should always respect and protect the dignity of participants in research. This requires sensitivity, empathy, and accountability towards the target group for your research. The greater the vulnerability of the participants in the research (community, author, expert, etc.), the greater the obligation of the researcher to protect the participant. To this end, you as the researcher should:
- Ensure that you know and understand the values, cultures and protocols of your target group. It might be necessary to be academically or culturally qualified to work with some communities.
- Consult experts on communities if you lack the qualifications, knowledge and cultural background to work with them.
- Share your findings honestly, clearly, comprehensively and accountably with only those who are entitled to have access to the findings.
- Report your findings, and the limitations thereof, openly and honestly so that peers and the public in general may scrutinise and evaluate them, keeping in mind that your findings may probably only be shared with certain people.
- Acknowledge and point out the possibility of alternative interpretations.
- Respect the right of fellow researchers to work with different paradigms and research methods and accept it if they disagree with your finding and interpretation.
- Agree to disagree rather than to defend your point of view fanatically in an effort to sway others.
- Honour the authority of professional codes in specific disciplines.
- Refrain from using your position for undeserved, corrupt or otherwise dishonest personal gain.
- Because ‘harm’ is defined contextually, ethical principles are more likely to be understood inductively rather than applied universally. That is, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, ethical decision-making is best approached through the application of practical judgement related to the specific context.
- When making ethical decisions, you should balance the rights of participants with the social benefits of the research and your right to conduct the research. In different contexts the rights of subjects may outweigh the benefits of research.
- The importance of adhering to ethical requirements is equally important regardless of which stage of the research process is involved.
- Ethical decision-making is a deliberate process, and you should consult as many people and resources as possible in the process, including fellow researchers, people participating in or familiar with the contexts or sites being studied, research review boards, ethic guidelines, published scholarships and where applicable, legal precedent.
With the above principles in mind, the ethical issues that impact the most on research are:
- The notion of truth.
- Codes of consent.
- No harm to the participants.
- Analysis and reporting.
- Research ethics and society.
- Copyright and intellectual property right.
- The originality of your research.
- Promulgation of results.
The notion of truth. Truth is largely governed by critical epistemology. Critical epistemology is an understanding of the relationship between power, cognitive reasoning and truth. This implies that the way we think about concepts, theory, philosophy and phenomena determines what we would regard as truth. You should uphold the epistemological principles that apply to all researchers, meaning that truth should be a product of logical reasoning and evidence. In terms of critical epistemology, however, we need to be careful – it is easy to twist your arguments to fit your preferences by describing them in terms of an unfounded epistemology. The need for and availability of power can erode logical truth. Sometimes writers and researchers work with a predetermined political agenda in mind, for example to gain support from a particular group or to promote a political objective, rather than to strive for scientific validity. You will only truly develop new knowledge or add to existing knowledge, that is, make a positive epistemological contribution to science, if you are objective and honest in your interpretation and analysis of information. This brings us to the epistemic imperative.
In the world of science our aim is to generate truthful (valid/plausible) descriptions and explanations of the world. This is called the epistemic intent of science. “Epistemic” is derived from episteme, the Greek word for “truthful knowledge”. We use “truthful” as a synonym for “valid” or “close approximation of the truth”. We accept knowledge to be accurate and true when we have sufficient reason to believe that it is a logical and motivated representation or explanation of a phenomenon, event or process. There needs to be enough evidence to support such claims. It mostly takes time to accumulate evidence and claims of truth must withstand repeated testing under various conditions in order to be accepted as valid or, at least, plausible.
“Instant verification” of a hypothesis or theory is largely impossible to achieve. Research takes place all the time, and scientific communities accept certain points of view, hypotheses or theories as valid and plausible, based on the best available evidence at a given point in time. However, new empirical evidence contradicting current “truth” can be revealed by new research at any time in the future. The obvious thing to do when this happens would be for scientists to revise their opinions and change their theories.
Commitment to “truth” is not the same as the search for certainty or infallible knowledge. Neither does it imply holding truth as absolute without any concern for time and space. The notions of “certainty” and “infallibility” would suggest that we can never be wrong. If we are to accept a particular point of view as “certain” or “infallible” we are in fact saying that no amount of new evidence can ever lead us to change our beliefs. This would obviously be a false stance, making a mockery of scientific enterprise. Life and the environment are dynamic concepts – not only do they change because of internal and external forces impacting on them, but we also discover flaws in our beliefs and perceptions. None of the paradigms that we discussed already go so far as to claim that truth is exact and perfectly final. Pre-modernism might be regarded as an exception by some. The commitment to true and valid knowledge is, therefore, not a search for infallible and absolute knowledge.
Even though we know that “truth” is a rather volatile concept, the “epistemic imperative” demands that researchers commit themselves to the pursuit of the most truthful claims about the world and the phenomena and events that have an impact on human beings. This has at least three implications:
- The idea of an imperative implies that a type of “moral contract” has been entered into. It is neither optional nor negotiable. This “contract” is intrinsic to scientific inquiry. Every researcher and scientist should commit themselves to this contract. When you embark on a scientific project, or undertake any scientific enquiry, you tacitly agree to the epistemic imperative – to the search for truth. But the epistemic imperative is not merely an ideal or regulative principle. It has real consequences. This is evident in the way that the scientific community deals with any attempt to circumvent or violate the imperative.
- The “epistemic imperative” is a commitment to an ideal. Its goal is to generate results and findings which are as valid or truthful as possible. The fact that it is first and foremost an ideal means that it might not always be attained in practice. All research, however, should represent steps closer to accuracy and truth. It seems to be unlikely, if not impossible, to achieve perfect accuracy and truth, amongst other things because of methodological problems, practical constraints (such as lack of resources) and a dynamic environment. We are often required to settle for results that are, at best, approximations to the truth.
- The meaning that we attach to the concept “truth” presupposes a loose, somewhat metaphorical relationship between our scientific proposition and the world. Contrary to the classical notion that “truth” means that what we regard as reality, and what reality actually is, as being the same, we accept that this relationship is not that simple. The notion of “fit”, “articulation” or “modelling” is a more appropriate term for two reasons: Firstly, it suggests that a point of view can be relatively true. Articulation is not an absolute notion but allows for degrees of accuracy. Secondly, the term “articulation” can refer to the relationship between our points of view and the world (the traditional notions of “representation” or “correspondence”), or to the relationships between our points of view. In the latter’s case, we would use the term “coherence”. This means that “articulation”, “fit” or “modelling” is used to refer to both empirical and conceptual correspondence. When our conceptual system exhibits a high degree of internal coherence, we could also speak of the concepts as “fitting”, “being articulated” or “being modelled” well.
Ethics deal with matters of right and wrong.
The principles of an ethical approach to research are:
- Respect and protect the dignity of participants in research.
- Base ethical decision-making on the application of practical judgement in a specific context.
- Balance the rights of participants with the social benefits of the research and your right to conduct the research.
- Maintain and apply sound ethics throughout the research process.
- Treat all participants and stakeholders in your research ethically.
Truth is largely governed by critical epistemology.
It should be the product of logical reasoning and evidence.
The need for and availability of power can erode logical truth.
Always keep the epistemic imperative in mind when conducting research.
The implications of the epistemic imperative are:
- A moral contract is intrinsic to scientific inquiry.
- All research should represent steps closer to accuracy and truth.
- Truth is not always absolute or timeless.
On the questions that I posed in my introduction –
All people do not care about the truth.
But, as you know, this is nothing new.
Not all people seem to have the ability to foresee the consequences of dishonesty for individuals, families, communities, cities, countries, the world.
Ironically lack of visionary thinking has this nasty way of causing great damage to the myopic in the end.
Enjoy your studies.