Tuesday, 18 March 2008

I want to ride my bicycle

One of my vices is reading detective fiction. Not the hard, edgy stuff that involves rape, drugs, sink estates and forensic details, but the old fashioned books, involving broken hearts, blackmail, servants and quirky detectives.

My current favourite is Miss Maud Silver. Miss Silver loves the poetry of Lord Tennyson and knitting. However, she is not as fluffy as you might think. When she takes on a case it is normally because the fiance/wife/nephew of the accused begs her to prove their loved one's innocence. Miss Silver becomes very stern at this point. Earlier in life she was a governess, so she does stern very well. She can, and will set out to find the truth, she says, but she cannot and will not set out to prove this or that person innocent. Of course, the truth always turns out to be that the person she is defending turns out to be innocent, and a happy ending is guaranteed.

I thought about Miss Silver today when I caught site of Guardian Headline about bike stabiliser wheels. The headline as it appeared in my newsfeed (although not actually in the article itself) was "Stabilisers slow down baby bikers: a new study aims to prove that parents shouldn't use training wheels when introducing youngsters to their first bike". Research of any kind should be setting out to discover or demonstrate a truth, not to prove guilt or innocence.

Occasionally I am contacted by people wanting me to do a literature search for them. I am always more than happy to do searches for people - just ask us. I do worry, however, when I am asked to find evidence to prove that a certain piece of equipment ought not to be used, or that nurse led clinics are best. What I will search for, and present to the enquirer, is the evidence. And if the evidence mostly shows that nurse led clinics make no difference to outcomes, or that the equipment is perfectly safe, then so be it. I will not pass on just those bits of evidence that support the argument.

Of course any piece of research needs a question, an hypothesis, to get it started. The hypothesis has to be proved, or disproved, through the research. Generally speaking the aim is to prove the theory, but if the evidence disproves it, or fails to prove anything one way or the other, then unhelpful evidence cannot just be swept under the carpet. We should look for the evidence - whatever it shows.

Many a time Miss Silver has had to be stern with Randall or Frank, chiding them gently for letting their prejudices blind them to the facts. You cannot, says Miss Silver, just ignore those bits of evidence that are inconvenient to you because they fail to back up your pet theory.
As Frank is apt to remark, Maudie is a wonder.

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