Category Archives: Medical Education

Pathways to truth: Experience, Reasoning, Research

Disclaimer: This is the first in a series of articles that discuss how we derive meaning- an introduction to research. The emphasis will be more on the theoretical underpinnings- practical aspects will be discussed later.

Since time immemorial, humans have sought to make sense of the world around them. This includes attempts to determine the relationships between phenomena/ events to arrive at the truth. This quest for truth has manifested itself in several ways. From the perspective of research, there are three approaches of interest to us: Experience, Reasoning, and Research.

Experience

For a long time, humans depended on ‘common-sense’ to determine the truth. Even to this day, experience is given considerable respect, and a common-sense approach is emphasized in many areas. This is the approach used by laypeople to make sense of the world.

This approach has some drawbacks:

Common-sense does not often lend itself to understanding the basis of (natural) phenomena- the idea that day and night are caused by the rotation of the Earth on its axis (and is responsible for the sun rising in the east) is common-sense today, but not several hundred years ago. Similarly, today solar eclipses do not cause as much fear as they did in the past because we know what causes them. However, these insights were not acquired through common-sense.

Laypeople may examine ‘theories’ in a loose, uncritical manner. In fact, laypeople may have a loose understanding of the term theory as well. Theories may be tested in a selective manner, only serving to confirm pre-existing beliefs. Usually, testing a theory does not involve including controls to isolate the effect of putative cause(s). For instance, the belief that getting wet in the rain causes common cold would be ‘proved’ by describing individuals who developed a cold after getting wet in the rain. Testing this in a systematic manner is not considered necessary. The multitude of people who do not develop a cold after getting wet in the rain would be conveniently ignored as well.

Similarly, the attitude of laypeople towards relationships among phenomena is unsystematic and loose. It is easy for one to dismiss the experience of another merely by stating, ‘In my experience…’, especially if the person making the statement is older than the other.

Despite the above drawbacks, this approach finds favour with most people because it is accessible, and does not require special training or much logic.