Good research avoids bias.
Bias appears when personal considerations start to influence how research is done and its findings. For example, people get concerned when medical researchers are funded by companies who have a financial interest in the research findings benefiting their business.
Personal interest and bias can influence which research questions are asked; which methods are chosen; which participants are selected and when; which data are collected; how data are analysed; how data and findings are interpreted and what findings are promoted.
A particular widespread research problem is bias in interpreting a body of literature, particularly of the literature is not tightly reasoned and evidenced.
In some cases, bias occurs from creating a narrative in research interpretation that seems obvious to all concerned and everyone is happy with.
Let’s unpack that idea.
The human preference for emotionally meaningful narrative is well known. A good story - that is obvious and people are happy with - is one that intuitively feels right.
What are the foundations of that intuition that a research interpretation feels right?
Intuition is founded on repetition and learning. The feeling that something feels right (or not) is a subjectively-based, culturally-indoctrinated behaviour. Put another way, it is a direct imposition of subjective bias in research.
This results in the uncomfortable ethical position (in terms of research method and research ethics) that feeling that an interpretation is correct, is by its nature a biased subjective position and hence an indication of compromise and corruption in the research. This is especially so when an explanation, interpretation or research finding intuitively feels correct.
In research terms, what is the remedy?
The most obvious remedy is to search for counter-intuitive explanations, interpretations, findings and choices that are equally as valid in terms of the research problem and the data.
At a deeper level, this use of the search for the counter-intuitive extends to all research choices: of research method, data collection, participant selection and all other aspects of a research project. The directive to search for counterintuitive choices helps avoid subjective bias in all research choices and decisions.
This proposal to search for the counterintuitive, rather than the intuitively obvious, can be seen as an extension to Popper’s use of refutation as the basis for research validity. The justification for searching for the counter-intuitive can also use the same reasoning Popper used for refutation to justify the search for counter-intuitive choices as the basis to improve the validity of research in the internal choices and interpretations made in a research project.
There are many benefits to searching for the counter-intuitive over and above avoiding research bias.
The act of searching for counter-intuitive choices requires exploring the framing of a research project in more depth and accuracy and with less unjustified assumptions. In that sense it is like the Islamic teaching aid of making only one mistake in the creation of something (e.g. try to draw a circle with only one error and you soon know a lot about the nature and geometry of circles!).
Searching for the counter-intuitive also quickly reveals many false assumptions or faulty logic in existing theories.
More excitingly, finding counter-intuitive explanations almost always provides breakthroughs; offers the basis for new and improved theory, interpretations and findings; and can redefine the basis for whole fields of research. It might even make you a lot of money!
Anther paper I wrote on related issues is Love, T. ( 2009). Counter-intuitive Design Thinking: Implications for Design Education, Research and Practice. Cumulus 38South Conference, Melbourne (pdf 160Kb) .
(c) T. Love 2015