Addressing the weakness of our data and arguments: A responsibility for all

Knowledge is very difficult to come by. While knowledge might not require certainty, certainty is the utopia for which all science and philosophy strives. In the mean time — while we wind our way through the maze of knowledge to, at some distant point in time, arrive at certainty[1] — we gather all the data we can and attempt to analyze it in the best way possible. During this process we weed out the obviously useless data, but we are still left with imperfect data. If the data were perfect, we would have already arrived at certainty. So what do we do about the imperfect data we have? Obviously our arguments are weakened by imperfect data, so we cannot say for certain that our arguments are valid. What to do?

We address the weaknesses of our data and the weaknesses of our arguments.

This is an immensely important step in the soft sciences. Without taking this step our papers will be held to higher, impossible to clear scrutiny. Claiming to have absolute knowledge (certainty) in the social field (and probably in other hard science fields) is a death trap for academic papers.

In my research into the practice of self-immolation as a tool for political contention, I went out of my way to address the weaknesses of my data, devoting about five pages of text to uncover and discuss the various problems associated with it. In my analysis chapter I addressed how these weaknesses impact my findings and how we may overcome these weaknesses in the future. I went above and beyond the call to address the weaknesses, but this actually strengthened my overall argument. (Essentially I was saying, “This is what the preponderance of the evidence suggests, but until better evidence can be collected, I cede that I may be wrong.”)

This is not the only way to address the weaknesses of you data. You might not even use the word “weakness” when addressing the deficiencies of available evidence or the weaknesses of your argument. Instead one might utilize the tried and tested counterargument and rebuttal chapters. Either way, it is important to acknowledge the potential for being wrong. Everyone in academia does this: from freshmen working on their first research paper all the way through professors emeritus.

This action should not be solely the domain of academics. I suggest that we bring this into everyday discussion, particularly when one attempts to make an argument on a social forum. This might appear risky to religious people, as addressing the weaknesses of religious claims has the unfortunate side effect of undermining religion (hey, it works both ways, buddy!), but I feel religious arguments would get more respect if the people making them publicly acknowledged that evidence may render them wrong.

Religious arguments that cede this undeniable point benefit greatly from acknowledging their weaknesses. Most important among these: they can be brought into the public discussion without fear of being wrong. Let me reword that. It is impossible one will be wrong about saying they might be wrong. It also allows for religious claims to be altered by available data, leading to a more coherent tool to explain observable phenomena. Religions cannot survive if they do not adapt to the evidence before them. Then again, like I already stated, it’s a double-edged sword because religious claims, even those that adapt to evidence, are less relevant than claims at which we arrive using the scientific method.

In summary, knowledge is imperfect, even though we strive for perfection. Because of this, it is our duty to admit to where and how we may be wrong. It is our ethical responsibility if we are to use our findings to explain the universe (both physical and social). Religions should adopt this practice, despite the implications of doing so.

[1] Using the trope of international security, Ken Booth lays out how we may be inching towards utopia (certainty, in this case). This has little to do with knowledge as a concept, but if we apply his work to knowledge, we might better understand this phenomenon.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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