How will you deal with uncertainty in research findings?
I will accept that uncertainty is always a part of social research, and try to be honest about the uncertainty in my research.
Things are never as clear cut as we might like them to be. Research results are uncertain. The idea that you can go out and do research and simply find the answer to a social problem is patently false. Gibbs et al note that ‘Uncertainty is normal currency in scientific research… [r]esearcher[s]… have to estimate how much of the picture is known and how confident we can [be in] their findings’ (2013, p. 4). However, ‘in public discussion scientific uncertainty is presented as a deficiency of research. We want… certainty – safety, effective public policies, useful public expenditure. Uncertainty is seen as worrying, and even a reason to be cynical about… research’ (2013, p.4). This means that we are often presented with studies and theories which present themselves as certain: ‘[t]hese incentives make it tempting for researchers to maintain assumptions far stronger than they can persuasively defend, in order to draw strong conclusions’ (Manski 2008). What can we do to deal with uncertainty in our research?
I struggled for a conclusive answer to this question. The problem of uncertainty in itself is unresolvable as research is always based on chipping away at what we don’t know (Gibbs et al 2013)! Therefore, I want to relate the problem specifically to the specific area of public health research to attempt to provide an adequate model of dealing with uncertainty. Public health research is often interested in a number of different factors in explaining illness. Wider social factors, like socio-economic status, culture and environment play a part, alongside work, education, unemployment, housing and healthcare, community networks, individual lifestyle as well as the usual demographic factors such as age (Dahlgren & Whitehead 1991). Not to mention, individual genetic factors can also play a part in the causation of illness. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but gives, I think, an idea of the complexity of understanding health and illness. My own research relates to the effect of social connections on mental illness. It is tempting, I feel, to think of my research as important, as a new and exciting answer to a social problem. However, having just listed all the potential factors which other authors show to influence health, I somehow have to be able to honestly account for that in my research.
I think that dealing with uncertainty, therefore, comes down to honesty. To being honest about what the literature says on a topic, whether it agrees with your theories or hypothesis. To showing, as discussed in a previous blog post on truthfulness, how you came to your results and what other variables in quant research or where qualitative data seems to contradict your findings. To writing your research findings in such a way as to represent the uncertainty of the results, rather than to attempt to hide it. Although, again this approach faces the same problems as my response to ensuring truthfulness in research: that all the incentives are geared toward projecting certainty, especially if you want to get published, and influence policy. I think what it really requires, to deal with uncertainty in research therefore, is to be a bit brutal with yourself in the pursuit of better knowledge. Yes, academic culture and political culture might need change, but it’s also up to researchers to make that change themselves if that’s what they want to see. As Marx put it almost 150 years ago:
‘There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits’ (1872).
Dahlgren G, Whitehead M. 1991. Policies and Strategies to Promote Social Equity in Health. Stockholm, Sweden: Institute for Futures Studies. cited in: Gada, S. (2012). Community Paediatrics. Oxford University Press.
Gibbs et al. (2013). Making Sense of Uncertainty: Why Uncertainty is Part of Science. [Online]. London: Sense About Science. Available from: http://senseaboutscience.org/activities/making-sense-of-uncertainty/ [Accessed 25/03/2017].
Manski, C. F (2013). Public Policy in an Uncertain World: Analysis and Decisions. [Online]. Harvard University Press. Available from: http://www.cemmap.ac.uk/forms/manski_mc2013_slides.pdf [Accessed 25/03/2017].
Marx, K. (1872). Capital Volume 1: Preface to the French Edition. [Online]. Available from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p2.htm [Accessed 25/03/2017].