Error, Intuition, Truth and Innovation: Crucial Stops on the Journey through Theory

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Theory should be seen as a flashlight, but as a good flashlight, which doesn’t stay pointed in one direction. You use it in different directions and you observe that it has its field of light and its field of shadow.

When we have a theory, it’s not all the social problems we work on for which there are theories available. But when there are, it is better to start with a flashlight than to start in total darkness.

We have to realize that we ourselves, professors, evaluators of doctoral theses, master’s degrees, etc., sometimes develop, depending on the circumstances of our discipline, a certain number of stereotypes about theories. We sometimes send the wrong messages about the roles of theory. One of the things that I have become aware of in over 40 years of research and teaching experience is that very often in the social sciences, theory is seen as an obstacle to good observation – as something that will lead you to repetition and not to innovation, as something that will create blind spots.

But theory as such does not produce this. What can produce this is the use we make of theories. But theories themselves… In the field of science, the theory does not want to live with error. It must be there to be part of this circularity of testing. When we have a theory, it is not all the social problems that we work on for which there are theories available. But when there are, it’s better to start with a flashlight than to start in total darkness. Because without a total theory, simply saying: go and look in the different texts everywhere and make your melting pot, it is a principle of dispersion which also has its costs. It is very dangerous to reach a certain level of superficiality precisely because we do not have a theory.

In the social sciences, there is a kind of stereotyped view of what theory testing is, because the term theory is very often confused with very simple hypotheses. You could just have a very, very simple hypothesis: does it happen like this or does it not happen like this? Even then, there is enrichment. Even there, there is an addition of knowledge that can be important. But some social scientists see this as so frustrating, they begin to generalize that any verification is a problem. But the problem is that the verified medium, even opposite… the notion of demonstration, for example: no, you don’t have to demonstrate… But demonstration is an extremely important element in science or consolidation. So all these terms, I think that our methodology of research in the humanities must be semantically renewed. It is extremely old and outdated. And this is a long-term collective work.

The other kind of illusion or myth is to think that in science there are no standards at all, when in fact methodology is a collection of standards. Just that, to begin with. But these are how-to standards, and within these how-to standards, since the methodology is intended to get us to a certain result, the standard cannot be absolutized. It is important to know the standard in order to see its accuracy. But sometimes it is also important to challenge it, not to follow it, because otherwise new procedures, and even new knowledge, cannot emerge. It is better to always know the norms, and then to abandon them ad hoc in special situations, than to not know them at all.

When we produce truths, statements that we hold to be true, there appear sentences from two researchers in the humanities. We must speak of Luhmann on the one hand, in a completely independent way, and of Foucault on the other. We produce two types of truth: the truthful truth and the untruthful truth. The problem is that the untruthful truth is very often hidden in the truthful truth. In this work there is always a kind of attitude of openness that we have to help, costs of criticism, of suspension points, of bracketing – I don’t know what to call it, but scientific production is born to have a certain life, to have certain life cycles. Unlike a work of art that you can see – as Max Weber used to say, you could see a painting before the invention of the notion of perspective in a museum and still find it very pretty – in science, this is not likely to happen. We give up on that. We start thinking about something else. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t part of a step in our progression of knowledge, that it wasn’t important at a certain point, but at a certain point, it gave what it could give, and then we continue with something else. You have to learn to produce products without the expectation that they are products for eternity. That, I think, is the job of the researcher.

On the question of the role of error, this is something that, in my experience as a teacher, when I was trying to make students work on certain experiments or to make them think about certain things, I noticed, I started to pay attention to the fact that in all the social systems that are not sciences, normally the error appears as a problem, as something to be avoided, as something that we are afraid to listen to. We are afraid to realize that we make mistakes. We are evaluated by the mistakes we make, and this produces, from the researcher’s point of view, a kind of unlearning. Because for us, the error is a travel companion. It sits by our side. When, by myself, I see a mistake in myself or when a colleague sees a mistake in what I do, my feeling is rather one of joy, because it gives me more work: I want to come back, I have to rework it. There is a new beginning. I thought it was over, I was bored, and now I’m reviewing my data to see how I did, and not only my data, but the conceptual apparatus as well. Teaching the student to live in peace with error is sometimes a challenge, even in the classroom. Sometimes I would give an experiment to do, for example, I would give a description of a fact. I would ask them to give a sentence in that fact to try to assess with them what kinds of ideas were present, and all the time, the big panic is: am I going to use the right mistake, the right idea, the right thing, etc.? I would say, no, I just want to see what ideas you’re going to mobilize in this experiment; there are no right and wrong questions. The error, we’re going to discuss it again in the room, we’re going to work on it again in the room, but you’re not being evaluated by an error grid of correct answers and wrong answers. Now, in part of our own teaching, we have not escaped this, the correct answer and the wrong answer. But in the experience, in the science system, we have to teach them to live with the error, to be happy with the error, even if we try to avoid it. There is a kind of paradox or paradoxical experience that is, in my opinion, an important key in teaching research and research methodology to students. They need to become aware of that so that they can be more relaxed, and also more self-critical and more attuned to the criticisms that come from colleagues… when they are done well.

The issue of theory and innovation is a very complex problem. For all of us who work on it, any researcher, normally what we see in the literature is a great difficulty in explaining it. In the old scientific thinking, we were not able to distinguish between observational data – research data – and the statements that we got out of the research data. It was a kind of part of a whole – you refused a whole. You couldn’t, for example, use a colleague’s research data if you didn’t agree with the theoretical proposal that followed. Or if you were working in another subject, you would not go and look for his data to see how you could use this data in your own research, within another subject and another thing. Modern science allows us to do that. When we produce our data and our conceptual apparatuses, we have permanently two types of verifications to make: a verification, or testing let’s say, directed towards the factual dimension of the observations, and we have another directed towards the conceptual dimension. There are physicists and philosophers like Gaston Bachelard who immediately perceived this. Already in 1927, in his doctoral thesis on approximate knowledge, we see Bachelard drawing our attention to this necessity of not imagining that the verification is done only in the direction of the data, but also in the direction of the conceptual apparatus and the relation. So, we use the true/false code to function, but in science, the researcher has no interest in putting an end point in the truth and presenting it as a final definitive certainty – and there is no more discussion. Although for basic factual questions this may happen, the rule of operation in scientific communication is that even if it does happen, all the time it can be reopened in the form of a questioning by another colleague.

What is the role of intuition? So I say, how do we answer that? How to answer that, the role of intuition… What came to me on the spot, in the heat of the moment, are three ways of using these intuition mediums or referring to these intuition mediums. There is one way that is not necessarily good for science or the development of knowledge: it is when intuition is presented as a kind of explanatory principle of things. And why is this not good? Because if we take it as an explanatory principle, it is normally a pseudo-explanation, and it stops us – it introduces an element of laziness. It makes us stop there. If it’s explained by something so vague as an intuition that can serve as a boilerplate, it produces a kind of paralysis in the process of knowledge production – and that’s not our task. The most interesting thing, when we can’t answer certain things, when we don’t have the answer for certain things, is to close with a question mark: this, I don’t know; this, we have to see; here, we have a black box – rather than leaving already with the messages of an explanation that Gregory Bateson would say, making the analogy with the notion of instinct for example, which has been used to close a lot of explanations. This takes on the appearance of a dormant hypothesis, as he was talking about.

The other use of the notion of intuition that seems interesting to me is when intuition appears as a principle of direction. By intuition, we say: you have to go and see, you have to go this way, in this direction; it is a principle of direction of the work. So, yes, I tell my students, when they say something, sometimes I’ll even recommend to them, when we pose a problem on data or things like that: do you think it will work, etc.? Even sometimes, in statistics, that happens. Should I relate this variable to that variable? Sometimes we’ll just say put them together and see. Let’s see what happens. In qualitative research, it’s the same thing. Sometimes you have to go and see. In this sense, it has an interesting role.

The third way in which the medium of intuition sometimes appears is when an intuition already means the recognition of an idea. Intuition comes as insight, as almost synonymous with insight. I had an insight, I had an intuition. When we say that, it’s because there is an embedded idea, and that’s also very good. There, it’s not only the direction: we already have something to work on, something that is a bit provocative sometimes, that puts us in a state of doubt, or that even seems motivating if the insight is good. Insight can be gained by reading several colleagues, several other works, sometimes completely outside the discipline and the field. These are sources of insight. I’ve had many insights from colleagues, from reading work from colleagues completely outside of my discipline. Sometimes it’s a word to explain, an explanatory or descriptive principle that you hadn’t thought of at all, or a particular meaning of a concept that you use, but never in the sense that was used by your colleague. I find all of this extremely interesting. So I say to students, yes, report your insights. Take it seriously, because it can take us somewhere in terms of innovation.

In this autumn school scenario, what I find particularly important is a kind of circular opportunity to have master’s students, doctoral students, and other colleagues present in the same room – other colleagues that we sometimes also experience as lecturers, not just as listeners. That is what is very important – and what made me smile at one point when I was thinking about the term “school”, is that you normally have the expectation that you come to teach. What you find when you participate fully in this type of experience is that the person who comes to teach is also learning. He learns not only with the other lecturers, not only with the professors who are in the audience, but he also learns with the students who are there. What’s interesting is that I try to see how students, sometimes, don’t have this awareness that by the simple question they ask us, they lead us to problematize, to better clarify, to better see and even to correct statements that we have made beforehand. It is a very enriching experience, and it is not only from a pedagogical point of view that it is interesting. It doesn’t just teach me to express certain ideas better. It invites me to better understand some of the problems I work in. The school dimension is like losing the circularity of the experience. Here, we really have a circularity of experience, and that, in my opinion, seems to be a kind of winning formula. But it is absolutely necessary that the participants, including the teacher who takes part, are aware of this.

As a result, everyone is placed on the same level, regardless of the background or capital, the stock of knowledge that everyone possesses. In this situation of exchange in which we try to understand better, to see better, etc., I think that there is a role for the stock of knowledge, but there is also a role for the questions that come from the work that each one is doing, from the reflection that each one is doing. This produces a kind of levelling of the exchange, when we are in a listening situation. I find that really very good.

Theories are developed by researchers to explain phenomena, draw connections, and make predictions. A theoretical framework can serve as a roadmap for developing the direction that a research inquiry will take. But the question “What is the theoretical framework of your research?” is a common source of stress for emerging researchers.

In this video, Professor Alvaro Pires, Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Canada Research Chair in Legal Traditions and Penal Rationality, explores how theories can guide researchers, while also examining some of the challenges and benefits that emergining researchers may encounter in applying theoretical frameworks to their work.

For example, Professor Pires points to the importance of our relationship with error, suggesting that errors should not be seen as problems to be avoided at all costs, but embraced as potential sources of learning and innovation. He also discusses the role of intuition in conducting research, noting that intuition can be a motivator that can lead to new and interesting areas for exploration.

Professor Pires compares a theoretical framework to a flashlight: You point it in the direction that you want to illuminate. It doesn’t light up everything, but it can guide you in the right direction. And it is better, he says, to start with the ability to illuminate a given direction than to start in total obscurity.

This interview with Professor Pires, led by Professor Margarida Garcia of the Faculty of Law’s Civil Law Section, was originally recorded during the third Autumn School on the Methodology of Research in Law, in November 2019. The Autumn School tradition aims to bring together students and early career researchers with experienced researchers to share perspectives on how research in law is conducted, and to benefit from one another’s questions and ideas.

This video was produced with the help of the University of Ottawa’s Teaching and Learning Support Service (TLSS).

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