Monday, December 05, 2011

Fabricated knowledge

I do not know whether you are acquainted with what is happening in the academic worlds in other countries, but recently in the Netherlands social psychology professor Diederik Stapel was dismissed because he had fabricated research data; not only once but so often that his university decided to report it to the police. In Germany, defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Gutenberg had to resign because it came out that his PhD thesis was full of plagiarisms. Since then more such cases have been discovered both in Germany and in the Netherlands. So, inside and outside our ivory tower of science and the humanities not everybody appears to be as original as s/he pretends.
I do not think that I am original in most of my blogs here, but I do not pretend to be so and at least I mention my sources, as every reader can check, and lack of originality is not a crime. But when I considered my recent blogs on knowledge again today, I had to think of the case of this Dutch ex-Prof. Stapel. Let’s suppose that looking for inspiration for my blogs I read an article by Stapel and, since his falsifications had not yet come to light, I had good reasons to think that the research in the article was real and that the data were correct. Also the argumentation in the article was okay, so that I could endorse his conclusion that A was the case. Therefore, given my definition of knowledge as methodically justified interpreted belief (see my blog dated Nov. 14, 2011), one could say that I knew then that A was the case. But, in view of what we know now about Stapel, can we still say that I then knew it? I think so, for then the conclusion was methodologically justified for me, and for many other people too, although not for ex-Prof. Stapel. However, now it is no knowledge any longer. Does this now mean that afterwards I have to change the idea that then I knew it?
One can defend that the “knowledge” in Stapel’s article has never been any knowledge at all, but in a certain sense what happens here is not so different from what normally happens in science, apart from that normally knowledge is not fabricated. For instance, we have an idea about something in reality, like that on average poplars are higher than oaks. We gather data in order to test the idea, for example by measuring 100 mature poplars and 100 mature oaks around here where I live and comparing the average lengths of both. Then we can say that we know now that on average poplars are higher than oaks. But usually things are often not as simple as that. In the days of Galileo most people thought that the sun turned around the earth, but Galileo showed that it was the other way around. So, did we get a change in knowledge? However, before Galileo people had good and sincere reasons to think that they knew that the sun turned around the earth, and this knowledge hadn’t been fabricated, so if you asked someone what s/he knew about the earth and the sun, you got the answer “the sun turns around the earth”. And today we are in the same situation: We think that we know a lot and probably we do, but for every piece of knowledge it is quite well possible that sooner or later someone will say: well, I developed a new research method which is better than the old ones (just as Galileo used a telescope for studying the sky, which was new in his days) and I have applied it and my conclusions are different. The upshot is: fabricated knowledge is false, it’s true (unless by chance the fabrication happens to correspond to reality), but it is not so that what we sincerely and in a methodically justified way think to know is true, even not for us, as the Galileo case shows. Only the chance it is is bigger. And to enhance this chance, that’s what science and the humanities are about.

No comments: