Saturday, April 07, 2007

Truth: a false frontier

Research is considered by some to be worthless if it isn't cutting edge, pathbreaking or on the frontier.

But how much do we understand about this so-called 'frontier'? And when do we know we're on it? And why does it matter whether we're on the frontier or not?

Recently, while having dinner with a friend who works as an academic economist, these and other thoughts crossed my mind.

I realise now, looking back on my decision to leave academia and go and work in the private sector, that pursuing 'pathbreaking' research is no longer an option.

So where I am now relative to this frontier? Have I been getting further away from it every year since I left the academic world? And does this mean that my research is worthless?


Research is the act of collecting facts in pursuit of the truth.

The more facts gathered, the closer we get to the truth and the more we understand.

So, 'frontier' research could be considered that which gets us closest to the 'truth'.

However, there is still very little we can say we know for certain.

So, is it possible that we may never know the 'truth', but rather only get as close as possible to it?

If this is the case, then frontier research would be the only research that mattered. Anything else would be a step backwards, right?

But what if frontier research actually took us a step backwards in our understanding? What if the product of frontier research turned out to be at best misleading or at worse just plain wrong? Worse still, what if what we thought was 'wrong' was actually right, but that we couldn't identify it as 'right' because we didn't know what 'right' was!?


In reality, there is no 'right' or 'wrong'. There is simply the addition to our pre-existing understanding. Anything we didn't know before but know now is considered a contribution, or 'on the frontier'.

In reality, anyone is capable of making such a contribution, because there are an infinite amount of things we don't know. Maybe this blog just helped improve your understanding, unless you knew all this already...


Apparently, over 60% of academic research is the 'regurgitation' of previous work. This is worthwhile in either proving or disproving ideas and for suggesting further areas of work. Whether this is worthy of being considered 'frontier' research is of course debatable.

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