Research and Responsibility

Recent discussions about the influence a vague entity called “Correlation” has on various Bloggernaclers got me thinking about the problem of responsibility in research. I admit I’m personally less likely to blog about certain sensitive LDS issues. For example, there are elements of temple ritual I feel comfortable writing about and other elements I don’t. I personally don’t feel like my reticence is due to being trapped in the Panopticon. I admit I’m less likely to be flippant or brash about topics that may be particularly challenging to the faith of other Latter-day Saints, and beyond that, to the general faith of other believers as well (except for the new atheists. I wouldn’t mind trying to burst bubbles there; perhaps I should be more careful). The question I am confronting is the responsibility I have to the effects of the research I create, participate in, or disseminate.

I’d like to hear reactions to an assertion made back in 1929 by sociologist George Lundberg:

“It is not the business of a chemist who invents a high explosive to be influenced in his[!] task by considerations as to whether his product will be used to blow up cathedrals or to build tunnels through the mountains” (quoted in John Durham Peters, “The Part Played by Gentiles in the Flow of Mass Communications: On the Ethnic Utopia of Personal Influence,” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 2006, 100).

I disagree with Lundberg’s vision of a social scientist’s business. What if we extend the scope from social scientists to historians, theologians, philosophers, political scientists, etc.? Should these people allow considerations of effects to influence what they write or the way they write it? What undergirds the attitude  that “truth will always win out”?  Are there potential downsides to the desire to “let the chips fall where they may”? Of course, the question is not always whether a particular sticky subject is handled, it can also involve how it is handled. But is it our business to even consider such things when researching and writing?

21 Replies to “Research and Responsibility”

  1. I’ve drafted an entire post in response to your question which I suppose I ought to post at my own blog rather than inflicting on you here — thanks for the question. In brief, though, and focusing on history since that’s all I know, I’ve never found that the truth about the past needs any apology from me. It doesn’t need to be censored or spun or softened. It also doesn’t need to be sensationalized or spun or made harsher. I do need to be sure I have the whole story, or enough of it to be very confident of what happened and why — the premature announcement of an incompletely understood (usually misunderstood) and poorly documented event is usually what causes trouble when it arises. I’m more sensitive about misrepresenting people of the past than I am about satisfying a living audience.

    You wouldn’t know it from my happy, positive, ain’t-we-swell blogging of the kinds of stories I really prefer to find, but most of my professional work has taken me to the ugliest parts of Mormon history — that is what other historians are willing to pay me to research. I’ve made a commitment to give clients everything, good or bad, and withhold nothing. That actually won me my job with David Roberts on his Devil’s Gate book on the handcarts: He asked at the beginning how he could be sure I would tell him everything and not just the flattering parts. I told him that I would hold him accountable for telling the truth, and I couldn’t expect him to know what the truth was unless I gave him every relevant detail I could find. That’s always been my policy. He was satisfied at the end that I had done that, and he was without doubt the most suspicious, most apt to sense cover-up, least likely to accept bull, client I have ever had.

    Well, this is almost a post in itself. Just be glad you aren’t getting the whole thing.

  2. Tell the truth, man. Those who hold to the “traditions of their fathers” should not hold you hostage to telling the truth. Thus, for example, if it is discovered that blacks never did descend from Cain, it should be said without prejudice.

  3. If it happened, it happened. If we don’t remind ourselves that it *did* happen once, we might make the mistake of letting it happen again. Or the mistake of thinking we are better than our forebears.

    And if we only tell the good side of the story, we make the mistake that our forebears were better than us, or even approaching perfection. No need to lionize them – they were people who made mistakes and had trials, just like ours.

    The danger comes when we insist that the only facts are the ones we ourselves are familiar with; when we become so entrenched in our own Mythology that we are unable or unwilling to see the Truth in others’ versions.

    Especially with history, new facts arise on a regular basis, and we should probably be open to revising our interpretations of events as new information is discovered. And you never know when some vital piece of information will be useful. Just because it isn’t useful to you doesn’t mean its worthless to someone else. So don’t leave something out based on your perception of its utility.

  4. My post isn’t meant to be a discussion about whether any particular bit of history will damage faith and it isn’t a call to sweep difficult issues under the rug. Remember, I asked whether there are potential downsides to the desire to “let the chips fall where they may.” I also noted that the question is not always whether a particular sticky subject is handled, it can also involve how it is handled. I asked whether it should be our business to even consider such things when researching and writing.

  5. Well, that was my doing — and I did admit it was all I know. I dunno other commenters’ excuses.

    As for downsides, the only ones I’ve encountered have been anger from people whose assumptions have been challenged. The challenge usually comes after a cursory reading or a secondhand report, too, not a careful reading and consideration of the new material.

  6. Ardis, I look forward to your blog post. I failed to respond to your initial comment, my bad! I appreciate your confidence in the historical record, and certainly appreciate the stuff you’re doing. The reaction to challenged assumptions is an important aspect of what I’m driving at. How to mitigate bad experiences, or should we even try?

  7. BHodges,

    I’m of the belief that the truth ought to win out no matter the topic, whether history or science, or whatever. We’re not children. Humanity can handle truth, even though many within may deny, for a while, or even for a long period of time. I’m struck by the quote from Joseph Fielding Smith that man is not allowed to leave this earth, to explore the moon, or any other planet. Who said so? In the end, we’re better off with the truth than with lies.

    As for consequences, I guess I’m with George Lundberg. What is a chemist supposed to do when discovering the ability to make something explode? Is he supposed to hide that, hoping no one else discovers it? If someone were to discover a way to make us be able to have x-ray vision, should it be hidden or suppressed simply because it can be used for nefarious reasons? Should the discoverer be held responsible for the nefarious uses of said discovery? Or should not the person who decides to use the discovery for nefarious uses be the one held responsible for the consequences of the nefarious use of the discovery?

  8. One of the main dificulties I encounter in writing is deciding who my audience is. I have to decide who is the face I see as I write. That guides (in the main) the vocabulary I use, the level of background material that needs to be included, tone and tenor, etc. If B. Hodges is less interested in content, at least as far as this post is concerned, is the question tone? Book, article, post – who is the face you see?

  9. I pursued a masters in Marriage and Family Therapy in a program that specialized in feminist issues, particularly abuse against women. There were often topics that were off-limits (politically incorrect) and I was uncomfortable with that. For example, research indicated that around 50% of the time, women actually instigated the physical abuse by hitting or slapping their partner first. The objection of feminist thought to this research at the time was that it re-victimized the victim, by blaming them for the consequences. This was a valid point. However, as a therapist working with both the victims and perpetrators of violence against women, I felt like I was able to reduce the frequency/intensity of violence with this information.

    I think as an LDS member, I would prefer a more complete telling than less complete. It is clear that there is a community that will publish every true and frequently untrue human weakness found in the Church. As one who frequently finds himself clarifying errors, I think I would rather have the full truth.

    BUT, I see little edifying in seeking out and dwelling on human weakness unnecessarily. “Truth” can be used for harm or healing and much depends on the author’s approach.

  10. BHodges, I’m sorry if Ardis’ uncovering of historical LDS beards has exposed yours, nice though it is, as not the coolest in the entire LDS history. I know that such challenges to your faith in your facial hair must be painful. But that’s really no reason to blame Ardis for uncovering the info. Don’t shoot the messenger. Maybe if you adopted a limited geography method of comparing facial hair you can reconcile your previous beliefs with this new information—maybe yours is still the coolest beard in Centerville’s history. Don’t give up BHodges, there are plenty of others who have been in your shoes and still maintain faith.

  11. great questions, bhodges.

    i think a lot of people in the fields you mention do think about these things.

    last semester in a class on method and theory in religious studies, our professor had us consider what, if any responsibity, the instructor has with respect to the faith tradition of students.

    i’m not sure whether we came up with any answers.

  12. I do think that there are times when it is best not to disclose the entire truth. There is a GEICO ad about Abe Lincoln that provides an illustration.

    I think the existence of confidentiality rules in society–e.g., priest penitent, lawyer client–demonstrates that sometimes the interest in privileging certain relationships for safe truth telling is more important than the provision of “truth” to a wider audience.

  13. Letting the chips fall where they may might be easier if we could assume that truth is a) singular, absolute, what have you and b) discoverable through rational inquiry in humans. Now I’m no philosopher, but it seems to me that any human inquiry is sensitive to at least some of its consequences, to the extent that the consequences (or at least some of them) motivate and animate the inquiry at every step. This is a good thing, in my book, if it causes the inquirer to prepare to help direct the potential outcome.

    Thank you for this post. It hits me at a time when I have never felt more strongly the implications of my complicity in constructing an ancient world that might not be so ancient. Let’s not forget, after all, that German Holocausts and Israeli Settlements have been justified in part by an appeal to the work of thinkers who were letting the chips fall where they may.

  14. Sorry I am coming late to this discussion, but getting back to the quote from Lundberg, I am reminded of a the Oppenheimer biography I read a couple of years back. Oppenheimer, of course, lead a great deal of the research that went into the creation of the atomic bomb. That he knew his invention would likely be used to kill thousands did not prevent him from pursuing it; nevertheless, in later years, he felt incredibly ambivalent, even culpable for what it had become. That sense lead him to speak out in favor of arms control and disarmament. I do not actively do research as part of my everyday life, but I see that as a worthy exemplar. The potential fruits of my research should not deter me from it, but one can pursue actions that will encourage the wise implementation of such research in the future.

  15. The potential fruits of my research should not deter me from it, but one can pursue actions that will encourage the wise implementation of such research in the future.

    Very well put!

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