investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Archive for the ‘Academic reflection’ Category

Should opinions be based on facts?

In Academic reflection, Facts and opinion, Interesting research, Misinformation, Neuroscience on March 30, 2014 at 7:00 am

“I think people should be able to express political opinion even if they get their facts wrong. This is a country in which people have a pretty robust sense of their right to their own opinion … Are we going to say that if you get your facts wrong that should be a prohibition on your right to express your political opinion?”

– Australian Attorney-General George Brandis speaking to Rafael Epstein on ABC Radio 774 Melbourne’s Drive show, March 27, 2014 (Listen here. Starts at about 8:07)

GEORGE BRANDIS MADE THIS COMMENT during a discussion about his government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Critics of the proposed changes say the amendments are not really designed to protect free speech – which the government argues has been hobbled by certain sections of the laws as they have stood for nearly 20 years – but are in fact designed to allow (even encourage) bigoted attitudes to flourish.

This, the critics say, is typical of political conservatives’ view that curbing “offensive” discussions about minority groups is a form of political correctness, which in their eyes is an inherently evil practice.
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‘Kindred souls’ exposing abuses of power: journalism in the information age

In Academic reflection, Interesting research, Previously published on June 19, 2013 at 9:47 am

An excellent rumination on the role academics might play in filling the widening gaps in journalism’s function as a gatekeeper for “truth”.


By Charles Lewis, American University

More then ever, we are awash in information. With the advent of the internet, search engines and now more than two billion people wired users globally, information “has become the modern era’s defining quality, the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world”, writes author James Gleick:

We are all patrons of the Library of Babel now, and we are the librarians, too.

The problem, of course, is that the quality of information varies widely. Much of it is utterly useless, woefully incomplete or worse, wilfully misleading. As a citizen and reporter watching those in power for more than 30 years, I am accustomed to being lied to. But it seems to have got noticeably worse in recent years.

In the United States, consider how Democratic and Republican presidents have repeatedly delayed and distorted the political truth. In 1964, president Lyndon Johnson was secretly girding for a major war in Vietnam while publicly promising not to send more soldiers. In 1972, president Richard Nixon secretly authorised a political “dirty tricks” operation inside the White House that, among many other things, effectively derailed the campaign of his most formidable Democratic foe, Senator Edmund Muskie. Both incumbent presidents breezed to their election victories in those years.

In the case of the Vietnam War (1962-1975), in which hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, the public learned over a period of years – with astonishing revelations still trickling out four decades later – that the rationale for direct US involvement there actually was a monstrous lie.

Instead of being attacked in a remote part of the world known as the “Gulf of Tonkin” by the North Vietnamese, as Johnson had announced, the United States government had in fact been engaged for months in various top secret intelligence gathering activities in flagrant violation of North Vietnam’s sovereign land, air space and territorial waters, including aggressive military provocations against that country.

Many of these and other lies and distortions were officially documented in the Pentagon Papers – the Department of Defense’s secret, voluminous history of the Vietnam War – which were leaked to reporters and courageously published by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers in June 1971.

The publishing of the Pentagon Papers and the media’s coverage of the Nixon Watergate scandal still represent a high-water mark in the struggle between raw political power and democratic values. But even with those emblematic moments, important information about those in power took years to become known to the public.

As the then-executive editor of The Washington Post, Benjamin Bradlee, mused two decades later: “what might have happened had the truth emerged in 1963 instead of 1971?”

At a public lecture at Harvard University in 1991, Bradlee said:

It seems to me that lying has reached such epidemic proportions in our culture and among our institutions in recent years that we’ve all become immunised to it. What the hell ever happened to righteous indignation, anyway?

In March 2003, almost four decades after the Johnson administration escalated the war in Vietnam under false pretences, the Bush administration led the US and several of its allies to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the basis of erroneous information about “weapons of mass destruction”.

In the two years following September 11, 2001, president George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq, as my researchers and I reported in 2008. The number of these statements spiked upwards at politically strategic moments – specifically before the October 2002 congressional vote on the war, and between January and March 2003, from Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations to the invasion itself.

The New York Times newspaper has brought to light many hidden truths – such as the Pentagon Papers in its history. cliff1066

The carefully orchestrated campaign about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction led the nation to war under decidedly false pretences. The cumulative effect of these incorrect, bellicose statements – amplified by thousands of uncritical news stories and broadcasts – was massive. Worse, much of the saturation media coverage provided additional, “independent” validation of the Bush administration’s misstatements about Iraq.

Five years after the invasion of Iraq, reporter David Barstow of the New York Times exposed how the Pentagon had quietly recruited 75 retired military officers to be “independent”, paid consultant, radio and television analysts. In numerous meetings and thousands of emails, they were secretly coached about precisely how to make the public case for war in Iraq on the air. Many of these military experts also had significant, undisclosed financial ties to defence companies that were benefiting from the policies they were “analysing”.

The broadcast news media essentially ignored these stunning revelations, neither acknowledging their own dubious use of such compromised “talking heads” nor apologising to the public for their irresponsible propagation of the government’s propaganda.

Unfortunately, most national reporters and their news organisations were figuratively embedded in the almost impenetrable din of official disinformation. But to paraphrase Bradlee’s excellent question about Vietnam, what might have happened if the public had discovered the truth about the actual threat posed by Iraq in 2002 instead of years later? Two distant quagmires, 20 years of massive bloodshed in wars in Vietnam and Iraq, might have been avoided, and trillions of taxpayer dollars saved, if the American people had been better informed with real-time truth about the specious official statements.

But the largest cumulative loss of life resulting from propaganda and deception in the last century was actually not from Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich or any other genocidal despot. It was from monstrously duplicitous industries that manufacture deadly products. And no industry has been more deceitful or caused more human carnage than the tobacco companies.

In the 20th century, 100 million people around the world died from smoking-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organization. And that number is expected to soar to an estimated one billion smoking-related deaths in this century.

In 2006, a US federal judge ruled that they had violated the federal racketeering laws, and while:

selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year…for at least 50 years or more…they have consistently, repeatedly, and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, to the government, and to the public health community.

But, of course, deliberately blowing smoke about their deadly products has hardly been limited to the cigarette manufacturers. The asbestos, coal, chemical, lead paint, pharmaceutical and many other industries have profited from the same modus operandi. Sometimes the specific subterfuge has been independently exposed by tenacious journalists, but too often years after the fact and, tragically, sometimes decades so.

This disturbing phenomenon unfortunately continues today, but now our professional ranks are fewer. Now we have a vastly reduced number of traditional truth-tellers and a growing number of well-paid poseurs who advise their clients on how to circumvent or “spin” those asking critical, independent questions, including journalists.

In the United States today, we have one-third fewer newspaper/print reporters today than we had 20 years ago. And meanwhile, according to authors John Nichols and Robert McChesney, the ratio of public relations people to working journalists has gone from nearly one to one in 1960 to now four “flacks” for every one working journalist. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, a disturbing proportion of daily newspaper stories today are based upon press releases.

British journalist Nick Davies labelled this lamentable practice “churnalism” in his 2008 book, Flat Earth News. In 2011, the non-profit organisation Media Standards Trust in the United Kingdom launched the website, that “lets people compare press releases with published news articles”.

The work of journalists has made a significant impact on contemporary US history. They have fearlessly exposed abuses of power, from the “red scare” demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s to atrocities during the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the various heinous excesses of corporate power over many decades. More recently, reporters have revealed the various improper uses of US power in post-9/11 America.

Since 2005, in preparation for a book, I have been conducting video/audio oral history interviews with 25 important national journalists – from Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee to Seymour Hersh, Dana Priest and Daniel Schorr – who through their work effectively have stood up to power.

This multimedia online presentation at includes career and iconic “moments of truth” timelines and related reference material. It is an ongoing companion to The Future of Truth, which will be released next year, and also fodder for a multi-hour television documentary series.

I wanted to learn more about these important truth-tellers and the legions of other hearty souls like them, in part to educate future generations about the importance of this kind of reporting. In the 21st century, our finite, non-sustainable, inter-connected world is at a critical crossroads. How will our elected leaders address the most pressing issues of our time, such as climate change, the shortage of water, the growing rich-poor inequalities and related human migrations?

In the US and other democracies, any attempt at honest, effective governance, of course, is predicated upon the widespread availability of timely, accurate information. Given the profound international dimensions of what we are all facing, investigative news-gathering must necessarily widen and become more global. But even in the 21st century, most news coverage is still overwhelmingly local or national.

As there is a diminishing number of working journalists in newsrooms, the industry must find new ways to expose corruption in high places. EPA/Stefan Zaklin

We must think anew about who we are, what we do, why we do it, technologically how we do it and for whom. We must identify kindred souls who also investigate the uses and abuses of power, who also have exacting professional standards and approach their subjects with an independent scepticism and distance. They should meticulously peruse secondary and primary written sources, and then interview the relevant secondary and then primary human sources.

The fact is, thousands of academics today function as de facto in-depth journalists – from the forensic accountants to the political scientists tracking political corruption, from economists to investigative historians, from public anthropologists to those who work in data-mining, statistics, and human rights, environmental and other law-related specialties.

I have formally proposed at American University a new interdisciplinary field of study that can help to broaden and redefine the practice of journalism. I am calling it “accountability studies”.

Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, many intelligent, talented young people who would like to become professional journalists but can’t find a job will increasingly join the ranks of another public-minded, “knowledge worker” profession. They may instead become researchers, writers and editors at non-government organisations (there are 1.5 million NGOs in the US alone), including policy-related, specialised subject think tanks.

This is certainly not a panacea for the drop in the number of journalists – these organisations have points of view that they advocate softly or not so softly. But, for example, who covers human rights more thoroughly: Human Rights Watch, with 280 full-time employees and offices in 16 cities around the world, or the premier newspaper in the US, UK or Australia? I’m afraid there is no comparison. Virtually all of these folks are highly educated and write careful, well-documented, scholarly and more popular articles, op-ed essays, blogs and books, all accessible and published online.

Imagine if more of these silo walls came down and social scientists and journalists in individual countries and across national borders began to communicate and collaborate more about the most important issues of our time. And there are vast resources available that are not commercial advertising, but instead philanthropic foundations and individual concerned citizens who spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the United States alone to enable the publication of high quality, well-written information.

In the spirit of such confluences, I note the innovation in Australia of The Conversation website, now operating also in the UK and beginning to develop in the US, which melds the grey matter and research and writing talents of energetic academics who find the op-ed gatekeepers of traditional newspapers to be too exclusionary and limited.

And it is also in that spirit of collaboration that American University and my Investigative Reporting Workshop have jointly hired a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with The Washington Post. This is unprecedented and may be, I believe, the beginning of a new way forward for both truth-telling and new future economic strategies and models.

My modus operandi is that it is better to try and fail, than not to have tried at all.

Why? Because given the present circumstances, there is too little time and there are too many subjects and frankly just too many bastards to investigate in this intricate, imperilled world we live in. We must broaden our views about who is “worthy” to gather and publish information outside our profession; we can and we must adapt and play in the sandbox with others.

What drives me is a pressing sense of urgency, for the abuses of power in the world today far, far exceed our collective capacities to investigate and expose them. We – along with the other inquisitive, investigative professions – are society’s proverbial canaries in the mineshaft.

We must all work together to attempt to enlarge the public space for watchdog or accountability journalism, in the US and around the world.

This article was prepared for the July-August edition of the The Walkley Magazine: Inside the Media in Australia and New Zealand. Charles Lewis will be a guest of The Walkley Foundation at the Storyology: Ideas Write Now! event in Surry Hills, Sydney, August 6 to 9 – tickets at

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Thesis mud map: the rise of fact-checking as a response to changes in media aucretrus

In Academic reflection, Mind map, Thesis progress on June 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm

So this is what’s in my head. Rather than keep it there and try to wrangle its growing tendrils I thought I’d put the whole mess on paper, hoping I can deal with it more easily in physical form. It’s version 1, so please forgive gaps, omissions, double-ups, rough edges. It’s yet to be shaped and properly polished. But it gives an idea of the early scope of my research.

To see detail, double-click the image then enlarge.


My life as a journalist: a confession

In Academic reflection on April 4, 2013 at 8:54 pm

A Public Self-Criticism

Early in my professional development I stood on the True Path that led to the Higher Purpose of Academia. I was young and my instinct was to seek to serve that Greater Good and its Pursuit of Truth. But I was weak.

One day, I came to a fork in the road: on one side the path continued towards Glorious Truth; on the other lay the cracked and crooked road to Journalism. I was tempted, and I succumbed.

When I stepped off the true path I left behind the History and Philosophy of Science; the great, unmined riches of the Annals School of History; and the unfathomable depths of a thousand schools of Chinese thought. Pursuing these interests might have filled ten lifetimes with intellectually rigorous investigation. Instead, I was drawn into a false and superficial world populated by shifting shadows, moveable ethics and impure motives.

I convinced myself that Journalism had value and that by practising it I could serve a Public Good. For more than 20 years I believed I was serving the ideal of Quality Journalism by applying the noble art of Research to inform a knowledge-thirsty readership. But my eyes were recently opened to the Glorious Truth by the Honourable institution of RMIT and the School of Media and Communication.

Thanks to the re-education I received while absorbing the clarifying philosophy of Professional Research Methods and Evaluation I now understand the enormity of my crimes. As a journalist I perpetrated a fraud on the people and institutions that trusted me: my family, my colleagues, the Honourable Public and even Democracy itself. What I did was not Research. At its least damaging it was a shallow pretence; at its worst an evil approximation that distorted Truth and misled weak and gullible readers unwittingly indoctrinated by the tricks and deceptions of the mainstream media.

The “research” perpetrated by journalists is an abasement. Mainstream journalism uses a catch-all approach to gather “facts”, crudely meshing them with the words of “experts” and/or “witnesses” (usually obtained at short notice, via the telephone, with no opportunity afforded for reflection or consideration!) and publishing them under the constraints of time, space and relative importance in a news agenda defined by commercial parameters. Mostly it is primary material, occasional “informed” by secondary sources. But it is almost always dashed off, stitched together to last just long enough for the next news cycle to sweep it away. Thus is worship of Objectivity and Eternal Truths slyly and carelessly supplanted by the creeping menace of Subjectivity and Ephemeral Interest, a process rarely admitted to by the perpetrators.

Driven by commercial imperative, most mainstream media rely on and also take advantage of weaknesses in human psychology. Like bowerbirds, we are compulsively attracted to shiny things; like kittens we cannot look away when something intriguing catches our eye. Thus coverage of even the most serious issues – those “boring” but worthy subject areas that deserve deep and considered analysis – must compete with the populist appeal of sport, manufactured political soap operas or the birth of an achingly cute baby elephant at the local zoo.

True Knowledge does not lie on the ground in convenient nuggets to be picked up and thrown in a sack, then taken to the market place and turned into bankable cash by the seller of metals. Yet this is what the media do. It is what I once did. The glittering clumps the media gather are Fool’s Gold – Fool’s Knowledge, you could say – useful to catch the light for a moment to attract the easily amused, or be used to decorate the fringes of some item of passing popularity, fadsome concerns alien to Deeper Understanding.

True Research takes time. It requires structure, careful thought, rules and parameters of practice to ensure consistency of application so that standards are maintained across and within all fields of Academic Inquiry. Standards are correctly kept high and maintained by the selfless gatekeeping process of Peer Review. The sacred mantra of “Problem Context Method and Outcome” is a beacon to Illuminate Truth. Journalism’s guiding trope of ”Who What When Where How and Why” suggests a fine ambition but it is one that always falls short because it is inconsistently applied and too easily bent out of shape such as to be useless.

I confess to such practices and confess to being a ringleader. As an editor at The Age I recruited and groomed others to similarly debase their intellectual energies.

For this, and for all my crimes against True Academic Research while a member of the Gang of Mainstream Media, I am ashamed and I apologise.

Signed …

On Research

In Academic reflection on April 4, 2013 at 9:12 am

WHILE doing the Professional Research Methods and Evaluation course at RMIT I gave a lot of thought to the nature of academic research. I’ll concentrate on that rather than on professional research because the “pure” nature of academic study appeals to me more – with some caveats.

Academic research is clearly an inexact science but its aim to reveal the faces of some kind of sacred truth or ultimate understanding of the world really is a noble one. Whether the subject is “hard” (engineering, chemistry) or “soft” (the humanities), academic research has gleaned insights into the world and ourselves that have driven us forward, for good or ill.

That said, I’d like to offer some critical thoughts.

“Did we really need to spend three years and $100,000 to learn THAT?”

The results of some research seem obvious, while some research topics are plain crazy. Three examples of eyebrow-raising studies (all winners of the Ignoble Award):

Suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio (“The Effect of Country Music on Suicide”, Social Forces, 1992)

Dog fleas can jump higher than cat fleas (“A Comparison of Jump Performances of the Dog Flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Curtis, 1826) and the Cat Flea, Ctenocephalides felis felis (Bouche, 1835),” Veterinary Parasitology, 2000)

Rats can’t always tell the difference between Japanese spoken backwards and Dutch spoken backwards (Effects of Backward Speech and Speaker Variability in Language Discrimination by Rats,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, vol. 31, no. 1, January 2005).

The media love to criticise what they see as irrelevant, useless research, and often present academic research in a poor light, oversimplifying complicated research to the point that any value it has becomes invisible. Perhaps there is great value in knowing that rats can’t always (can’t always!?) tell the difference between backwards spoken Japanese and backwards spoken Dutch. We can’t know until we know, if you know what I mean.

On the other hand, it seems obvious that suicide rates can be linked to country music (especially Billy Ray Cyrus) without research telling us so.

Is there value in confirming apparently common sense observations? Should something be considered not true until observed/proven/validated by research? Should grants be given out for any old research project just to be able to tick off that, yes, we now know that less smoking and more exercise leads to a longer life (I’ve seen that study)?

Good research is vital but bad research – that is, research based on flawed assumptions, imprecise questions, questionable motives – can do great damage. When public confidence in academic research is eroded to the point that people claim that scientists warning about climate change are only in it for the research funding, we’re in for a world of pain.

Was Darwin a plagiarist?

At university it is drummed into us that in all assignments we submit for assessment we must acknowledge the work of others, including “thoughts, ideas, definitions or theories”. Neglecting to do so is considered a breach of academic integrity, a serious matter.

If you’ve been reading and thinking about an issue for a long time you will have absorbed many concepts and themes and can easily believe those ideas are your own. It is also possible that you will reach conclusions that others in the same field of study are coming to, will come to, or have already come to.

Several years ago I wrote a newspaper column about Twitter. At the time there were two common analyses of the microblogging platform. The first focused on the potential of Twitter to become a substantial source of crowd-sourced citizen journalism that could supplant traditional, professional journalism. The other concentrated on how many followers users had; whether you were a “thought leader” on Twitter, how much influence you had among the cognoscenti in your field, how you used the platform to extend and strengthen your “personal brand”.

In the column I presented my theory that Twitter is just another broadcast medium, like radio: a minority of voices (equivalent to radio broadcasters) are “listened to” by a majority (the audience). To get value from Twitter you don’t need to be one of the big voices, you just need to be a wise listener and, if inclined, you can chip in with the occasional contribution (like listeners do on radio talkback).

Since that column was published, this has become a common third analysis of Twitter. Had I read an early version of this analysis before writing the column and forgotten about it, or did I come up with it independently? It’s unlikely I was the first person to think of it but I feel sure I’d never encountered it before. Had I unwittingly plagiarised someone? If, in a research paper, you present a similarly “original” idea that someone else has already come up with, are you guilty of plagiarism?

Before starting a research project a thorough literature review should uncover whether certain theories or findings have previously been unearthed. But sometimes a new idea can coalesce in the ether and drop to earth, in different places, simultaneously.

English scientist Isaac Newton and German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz developed calculus around the same time. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both “discovered” the theory of evolution. History is full of such examples of simultaneous invention. When a set of facts is in wide circulation it’s likely that more than one mind will put two and two together and come up with similar conclusions around the same time. In a super-fast, digitally-connected world it’s likely new ideas and inventions will arise simultaneously more often, in more places, created by more people. Original ideas will be harder to come by and the competition will be to be first to get them in front of the public or your academic peers.

Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the theory of natural selection before Darwin, but whose name is associated with it?

Should we tolerate this?

When setting out the intellectual/philosophical framework of their research context and method, the authors of many papers blithely accept the conclusions of previous research without critiquing them. “Following the analysis of Bifur, Bofur and Bombur, we base our research framework on their finding that …”

This practice is a useful convenience, but very few academic papers offer simple black-and-white conclusions. There’s usually a lot of “on the one hand” followed by “but on the other”. Yet in paper after paper such qualifications are glossed over and a simple conclusion is plucked out to support a position, and used to build new conclusions which, in turn, are simplified and used by subsequent researchers in their research.

Nuance and inconveniently conflicting views are thereby erased in the hope of building a singular truth. In mechanical engineering such discrepancies are known as “tolerance” – the amount of permissible “wiggle room” or tiny amounts or error by which a designed object will still function. (For example, beyond a certain degree of tolerance a bolt will not screw into a nut; metal needs to be able to withstand certain amounts of weight/pressure.)

It’s an inexact but necessary process: we shouldn’t – and can’t – reinvent or test every element of every piece of research we rely on. But when doing our own research we need to be aware of the wiggle room we build into our set-ups and arguments (context and method) and acknowledge it. As researchers we should also be aware that allowing too much tolerance weakens the whole edifice. As precision declines, so do solidity and reliability. This applies as much to academic research and argument as it does to bridges and skyscrapers.

Some thoughts about abstruse language in academic papers (I’m looking at you, Cultural Studies)

Journalism students are taught to avoid using jargon because it is the enemy of clear expression. But much academic writing seems to revel in being obscure. If you’ve put years of study and effort into your research, why make the results of your work difficult to understand for a broad audience by using words in combinations not found in any dictionary or guide to grammar?

Academics argue – as do all industry specialists who develop a secret, specific language of their own – that existing language and vocabulary cannot capture the depth or complexity of the concepts they need to express. In that case, I’d suggest, such research approaches the realm of the mystical, and its “results” are unavailable to anyone whose world-view is rooted in the practical and the solid. What tangible benefit can come out of this kind of research? How can it be used? Is it just talk and wordplay and esoteric insight for its own sake? Is its only value that it can be cited by the next study in a continuing procession of abstruse studies written by other members of the same club? I wonder.

I blame the French. Foucault, Latour, Baudrilleux and Bordieu would be easier to understand if they’d spent more time in primary school learning Euclidean geometry rather than Existentialism. Once you get the French writing and thinking as those blokes do, everyone in the Cultural Studies business starts doing it because they don’t want to appear dumber than the French.

There’s another possibility: perhaps I’m dumber than the French and those who follow in their intellectual footsteps. Still, even if these studies do mean something and have great (though hidden) practical value, my bottom line is this: I’m not willing to spend the time to work it out. The studies’ conclusions aren’t worth the effort of unpacking the language. As far as I can tell.

When he addressed us in Week 9, Tony Jaques suggested research should build on previous findings, it should teach us something new and it should lead to action. He was referring mainly to professional research rather than theoretical cultural studies-style research, but the point was a good one.

Tony Jaques also recalled an occasion when a paper he wrote was criticised as “too journalistic”. He took this to mean that the paper was readable and comprehensible – both good things – rather than high falutin’ and obscure.

Despite my rant at the top of this paper about the failings of journalism, I’ve come to realise that my preference in research methods sits somewhere in the middle of the continuum that stretches from quality journalism to research that is rooted in obscure theories only available to certain members of an academic club. Real numbers, trends and behaviour you can identify, results you can use to improve understanding and apply to improve policy (government, corporate, social): these are the kinds of research practice that interest me.

Lights! Camera! Action Research!

I was always marked highly for the Systems Theory papers I wrote when I dabbled in the subject at Monash a decade ago – even though as far as I could tell my essays meant nothing, I was making it all up as I went along, couching wads of nonsense in language that made sense only if you were the kind of person who habitually wears a colander on your head with an array of wires connected to a tin foil body suit beneath your clothes.

Did the lecturer (the late, great Frank Fisher) dare not mark me low because he wasn’t sure whether my papers contained great insight or were utter drivel? I don’t know. The thing is, I now realise that what I was doing was Action Research, which turns out to be a legitimate kind of research, not a subsection of the airy-fairy French wankery referred to above. Cool.

I quite liked doing the Systems Theory version of action research but do wonder: how can we be sure everyone is on the same page if experiential-based research is acceptable? Won’t subjectivity dominate? What are the common parameters that enable comparison of studies? Are such questions relevant?

I’d like to end with a passage from Jean McNiff’s Action Research for Professional Development:

In traditional forms of research – empirical research – researchers do research on other people. In action research, researchers do research on themselves. Empirical researchers enquire into other people’s lives. Action researchers enquire into their own. Action research is an enquiry conducted by the self into the self. You, a practitioner, think about your own life and work, and this involves you asking yourself why you do the things that you do, and why you are the way that you are.

Permission to rabbit on after a bit of self-reflection? Granted. Plus we’ll validate your parking as thanks for coming to the conference.