Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Everything I Needed to Know (About Research) I Learned in the Seventh Grade

I’ve been grading final papers in my master’s classes. The students were to write a paper on an aspect of Paul’s theology – his understanding of the Torah, his pneumatology (understanding of the Holy Spirit), his hermeneutic (method of interpretation) in interpreting the Old Testament. My current crop of students tends to make the same mistakes students have made in this kind of assignment everywhere I’ve taught; namely, they confuse “research” with “book reporting.”

You see, at a certain level (high school; college, perhaps), it’s okay merely to report what the so-called “experts” or “authorities” or “scholars” have said about a subject, providing the reader with something of a “Reader’s Digest” or “Cliff Notes” version of the scholarly “consensus.” But in graduate school, where students are required to move beyond mere “book reporting” to real “research,” that’s no longer sufficient. At the graduate level, students are expected to sift the evidence themselves; draw their own conclusions; stake out a claim on the subject and climb out there on the branch with the others, as it were. And so, when I get a paper on, say, Paul’s pneumatology, that only catalogs (or worse, counts!) the views of the scholars on the subject as though that “settles it,” their grades suffer accordingly. That’s not “research,” I tell them; that’s merely “book reporting.”

Real research (irrespective of the discipline!) is evidence-based. As such it does three things: (1) it lays bare the evidence, as we now know it; (2) it follows the evidence wherever it leads; (3) it draws whatever conclusions the evidence demands. Period. Anything else is not “research.” I learned that (wait for it!) in the seventh grade at Canal Point Elementary School. That’s right, elementary school. My teacher at the time, Mr. Threlkeld, spent considerable time teaching us this wonderful method for acquiring truth called “the scientific method.” It was he who taught me to begin with the question and the evidence, rather than to “rig the results” by starting with the answer and ignoring the evidence. I cannot tell you how helpful that method has been to me through the years! I do not believe that I could do any serious thinking on any subject without it.

And that’s what I’ve tried to pass along to my students, wherever I’ve taught. I instill in them the fundamental notion that real research always conducts a “conversation” of sorts with the evidence. In the course of the conversation, it’s fine (indeed, even desirable!) to expand the conversation to include others who have looked at the same evidence (the opinions of the so-called “scholars”). But good research methodology always begins with the question, not the answer; with the evidence, not the scholars; with the primary conversation, not the secondary ones. I tell my students: “Until you’ve explored the evidence yourself, it’s best to lock the scholars out in the hall. Don’t let them in yet! If you let them in too soon, they’ll bully you, bias you, bludgeon you into their way of thinking. Begin your conversation with the evidence, not the scholars; and then, after you’ve carried on an extensive conversation with the evidence, it is all right to let in the scholars as ‘conversation partners’ and ‘colleagues’ with you. But do it too early, and you’ll only see what they want you to see!”

Unfortunately, it’s an error that is not confined to biblical studies – starting with the answer rather than the question; citing the opinions of the “scholars” as though that “settles it” without ever having explored the evidence. We’ve witnessed the same phenomenon in the field of the so-called “hard sciences” quite recently in the news surrounding the revelation that some “scientists” may have “doctored the data” on global warming so as to bias the evidence in favor of their preconceived perspective (read “answer”) that global warming is man-made. The case has been made, apparently with evidence, that some scientists (not all!), committed to the “answer” already pre-determined, conspired to drop from their research models any data that did not conform to their desired conclusion. When challenged at this point, their response has been curiously (and disappointingly) un-scientific: Well, even if we did fudge the data, the overwhelming consensus of the “experts” is that global warming is a man-made phenomenon. Well, that surely “settles it,” doesn’t it? We’re asked to trust the “consensus” of the same “experts” who fudged the data to begin with! I learned better than that in the seventh grade! Real research only treats the data as “evidence,” not the opinions of the so-called “experts” who can be, and often have been, quite wrong about their “assured results.”

Is global warming a natural phenomenon or a man-made one? I don’t know, but I do know this: Only the evidence will establish it.

And so, here’s a novel idea! Why don’t we start with the question rather than the answer, look at all the evidence and not just some of it, follow it wherever it leads us (whether it’s where we want to go or not!), and then draw whatever conclusions the evidence demands?

Mr. Threlkeld would be so proud.

7 comments:

dave said...

Dr. Stacy,

The same could be said to those of us who preach. We often go to the sermon with "what it means" already decided without letting the text speak for itself. Others go straight to the commentaries. Fortunately some of us have learned a better way of "doing preaching." I still go take that road every time I preach. Thank you, Dr. Stacy.

Wishing you the hope, peace, love and joy of Advent,

Dave

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks, Dave!

Advent Blessings,

wayne

stephanie said...

Being a teacher of seventh graders and a science teacher too, I rather enjoyed this entry.I use a simple card game to teach my students that the "scientific process" is actually a natural process of thought that all humans use to solve problems. I also ask them to decide which part of the process is the most important. Its interesting the cases they make for the question being the most important part of the process.Its also interesting to me how little questioning is taught or even permitted in our school systems.
Much love to you and Cheryl,
Stephanie

John King said...

Your blog about research and a teacher of yours made me think about several important things. In this comment I would like to share about a teacher I had and what he taught me regarding studying the New Testatment Scriptures. The teacher was Dr. Jim Blevins. He was a teacher at Mars Hill College and also at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He taught me regarding the study of the New Testatment:

1. Establish the text using the tools of textual criticism.

2. Translate the text.

3. Read what the Church Fathers had to say about the text.

4. Read what the commentators had to say about the text.

5. Interpret the text from your own theological perspective and from at least one other theological perspective.

6. Tell others what the text means to you, making sure that you interact with and use what you learned in steps 1 - 5.

While I have had many teachers over the years, few have had the impact and influence that Dr. Blevins had. While this blog has made me think about some other things, I will wait to share those at another time.

John King said...

My obersvation in this post is NOT a disagreement with what you wrote. However, I have an observation that demonstrates how hard "evidence based" research can be and how sometimes we must simply "stand on someone else's shoulders".

Most of the details are not relevant and would take way to much time; however, the general circumstance was a question about a particular greek word in the New Testament. One person rightly pointed out that their were "multiple possible" meanings for the word in question and the meaning that he had chosen was cited in a well-recognized lexicon. Another person claimed that the lexicon chosen was not extensive enough and the lexicon he cited gave 30 possible meanings instead of just the ten used by the other person and this person chose a different meaning from among the 30 that was not among the meanings in the lexicon with just 10. Finally, another person claimed that the word certainly had multiple possible meanings, but the word chosen by the second person could not possibly be right because "the meaning chosen had only ONE occurrence in any of the sources and that occurrence was in the fourth century CE.

My problem with judging this claim
was how was I to determine if the meaning had truly occurred in only ONE place. It was going to take a loooooooooong time to read and translate "all" the sources to examine all of the evidence, something beyond my ability. As it turned out, I could verify the fourth century occurrence, but I could not verify the claim that this fourth century occurrence was the ONLY occurrence of this particular meaning.

The point of my story is that we all "stand on the shoulders" of others when it comes to evidence. Much of any translation from greek requires that I rely on some very detailed and time consuming work that entails much expertise and judgement that is contained in the lexicon's themselve.

It makes me thankful for all of us who have "come before".

As an aside and as a question, does anyone know if now in the age of computers is their a resource that would allow a comprehensive search of extant greek literature within a certain time frame for a particular word?

R. Wayne Stacy said...

I only work in the New Testament in Greek. Consequently, I spend no time either with English translations or Greek lexica; therefore, I'm not familiar with the dilemma you describe.

The only reliable way to determine what a NT writer intends by a word is to see how he uses it elsewhere in his writing(s). New Testament writers didn't look up words in Greek lexica to see what they "meant" before they employed them.

John King said...

Dr. Stacy,

I certainly agree that context and how a writer uses a word provides reliable evidence of the writer's meaning.

Maybe I gave too much content that obscured my main point which was we all stand on someone else's shoulders. To learn greek as you have, I would guess that you had to rely on the learning and research of others.