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Bias in the Thesis: The Academic Danger of Having Something to Prove

The very word “thesis” seems to suggest that you’ve got something to prove—an idea you want to advance. So I suppose it’s no wonder that most of my thesis directing projects began in the same way: with a student appearing at my office to propose the study topic, invariably saying, “I’d like to prove . . .” They always seemed startled when I would respond by asking in return, “Why study the issue if you already know the outcome?”

Thesis and Hypothesis

Of course, every thesis and dissertation is built on some kind of insight—some theory that will be proven or disproven in the course of the study. That is to say, every academic thesis begins with some hypothesis. But if the truth of the hypothesis were clear before the study was even begun, then it would hardly seem worthy of the time, the effort, and the trees that are bound to be sacrificed to the project.  No, if a thesis or dissertation is worth writing, then its outcome has to be an open question—a question no one has yet answered in the way it is being posed in this work.

Willing to be Proven Wrong?

“What is your hypothesis?” After startling my would-be directee with the question about why the thesis should be written at all, my next question was usually about the theory that had inspired the work. And the very next question after that was always as startling as the first: “Are you willing to be proven wrong?” It’s a question worth asking because it gets to the heart of one of the greatest threats to any academic work: BIAS.

We all know the righteous indignation we feel when we discover that the outcome of a legislative process has been designed to benefit a powerful political lobby—that’s bias. We would be horrified to learn that the outcome of a drug’s clinical trial had been bought and paid for by a drug company—that’s bias. But the same is true of the studies that go on in every area of academia. They are intended to be in the service of people’s search for truth—not anyone’s pet idea or fragile ego. We can never divorce ourselves from the perspectives we bring to our work, of course, but those perspectives don’t have to determine the outcome of our research; if an academic is going to make any kind of real contribution to thought, his or her work has to be free of bias. And that means beginning any serious study with the willingness to be proven wrong. The interesting thing is this: A dissertation or thesis project that disproves the author’s hypothesis is every bit as valuable to the academic community as one that proves the author right. And it is just as worthy of the degree—maybe moreso, since that kind of conclusion makes it pretty clear that the author didn’t rig the results.

Sometimes a topic is just too close to the author’s heart to be given the objective study it deserves. What do you do if you find you care about something so much that you couldn’t imagine having your ideas about it proven wrong? Simple: Write about something else! Seriously. Odd as it seems, the things we care most about are often the worst topics for our academic study—while there's certainly a value to passion in our academic pursuits, the honest quest for truth in academic study requires some degree of objectivity. And where we care too much, our study is likely not to be objective. Those may be the topics we have to leave to someone else.

What is the Point?

All lofty ideas aside, there is a very practical reason why master’s and doctoral students are expected to write theses and dissertations: to learn (and prove that they have learned) the methods and theories involved in conducting serious, rigorous, honest research in their disciplines. The thesis is a kind of test, proving that one has mastered the skills required to carry on serious research in this field without supervision. The harsh truth is this: If you cut corners and force results when a committee of professors is going to examine your work, the hopes are fairly dim for honest, rigorous research when your only critics are your own students. In short, careful, unbiased research in the thesis develops a habit that is likely to live on in your professional life—and so is its opposite.

OK. Let’s not leave all lofty ideas aside. This one seems worthy of mention here: A rigorously researched dissertation or thesis might just make a contribution to future thought in your field. I suppose we all begin our studies thinking that our brilliant ideas are going to be striking new edifices of thought rising above everything built before us. Then we get bogged down in the tedious details of the research and begin to wonder if we can build anything of value at all. In reality, your master’s or doctoral work will probably not become a skyscraper of its own in the academic city. But it can be the next floor you build on top of someone else’s work. And if you build it carefully—so that it is solid and unshakable—it may prove to be a good foundation for the work of someone else yet to come. In the world of academia, that kind of collaboration is how really great ideas get built. And isn’t that reason enough to do our work as honestly and carefully—and as objectively—as it deserves to be done?

 

This article is archived from the original Edits Made Easy website and is re-posted here to our new blog under a new date.

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