Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Value of Empirical Research

Added on by Tom Webster.

Yesterday I read a critique of a new study that represented itself as empirical research on an aspect of social media. The critic noted that he knew the study would be crap as soon as he saw the word "empirical" in the title.

It is true that much violence has been done to the truth in the name of empirical research. However, empirical research is not "anecdotal" research. Empirical research is observation, pure and simple. When minorities in the US sought to prove housing discrimination, it wass empirical research that provided the hard evidence as to whether there were, in fact, disparities in home ownership. The same is true for demonstrating bias in credit or mortgage decisions. In fact, the first step in showing any bias whatsoever is to first observe whether or not there even is an actual disparity. Empirical data allows the would-be arguer to determine if there is any factual basis for further exploration.

Therein lies the key to properly slot empirical research - empirical research cannot stand in for that "further exploration." Drawing conclusions based upon empirical research is, by definition, inductive reasoning, and likely flawed. But the fault there lies in the researcher, not the research. Empirical research by itself does no violence to the truth.

So, before blowing off the results of any study as "merely empirical research," don't forget some of empirical research's greatest hits, like penicillin, the Census, the 24-hour clock and the movement of the planets. How they move, and why, are likely more philosophical discussions. How far they moved, and when - this is the purview of empirical research. The key is - did the study imply some kind of conclusion that fallaciously confounded correlation with causality? Or did the readers of the study make that mistake through inference? In either case, the fault lies with a human, but the empirical research itself is likely blameless.