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Ajay Kumar

Degree:

Masters in Major Programme Management

Location:

UK

Industry:

Education

Year:

2015-17

By Ajay Kumar

On Chicken Wings, Gettier Problems, Popper’s Falsification, Black Ravens and Research Methods

Das Wissen ist der Tad der Forschung. {Knowledge is the death of research}— Walther Hermann Nernst

The consumption of copious quantities of chicken wings (with gin) at The Four Candles[i] has almost become a ritual, signalling the start of a module on the MSc programme.

On one such ceremonious occasion, the lady behind the bar told us that they had run out of wings (the shortage of which, I fully attribute to its sheer deliciousness). Having failed in my conquest, I returned empty-handed and forlorn to the table and delivered news of our loss to the gathered brethren.

Ten minutes later, to our absolute horror, plates of wings were being delivered to other tables!

The gall!

I walked defiantly to the bar, to enquire if the state of shortage had been suddenly reversed. The bar staff, who’d earlier delivered the bad news, said she was mistaken in believing that they had run out of wings; as unknown to her, they’d received fresh deliveries, but just now, as we spoke, they’d actually run out of wings!

Despondent again, it suddenly occurred to me, “What a classic example of a Gettier problem‽”

Though the lady behind the bar was ultimately right in having knowledge about the shortage of wings, it was not true for the reasons she had originally believed in.

To draw an analogy, if a clock stopped at 2’o clock and you were to look at the clock at that very instant when it was in reality 2’o clock, you’d be accidentally right in believing that the time was 2’o clock; in other words, your belief in having the right time is justified, albeit accidentally. This information is not knowledge, claims Gettier (1963) and situations of this type bear his name— the Gettier problem.

The Gettier problem has huge ramifications when making observations of phenomena especially in social situations.

The metamorphosis of a belief (or hypothesis) into generalizable theory (or accepted knowledge), through rigorous research, is exciting and this transformation was the focus of Dr Kate Blackmon’s outstanding module on research methods.

1

Euler diagram representing a definition of knowledge[ii] (and the demarcation between truth, knowledge and belief)

Over the course of 4 exciting days, the learned professor demonstrated the principles of good research, referring to methods elaborated in an influential text-book she co-authored, called “Researching Business and Management” (Maylor and Blackmon, 2005).

Dr Blackmon, stressed not only the importance of correctly defining, collecting and interpreting research data (both qualitative and quantitative), she also elucidated the principles behind the development of valid, generalizable theory. The carefully curated list of pre-module readings, allowed one to explore the many-nuances of research methodology— from the highly practical to the philosophical.

It was during one of these creative explorations that I came across Karl Popper’s falsification or the need for good theory to be falsifiable. I was immediately drawn to its underlying principles.

I learnt that if, for example, I set out to demonstrate that the sky is always blue, and I produced research ending with the claim, “Therefore, the sky is always blue”, it would but take you one second (especially given the English weather) to show me a grey sky, immediately disproving my claims. This, Popper (1957) claims, is good theory, because by falsifying my theory you have accounted for previously unexplained phenomena (grey skies), and as a result, you’ve generated theory that someone else will eventually falsify— and this is how our universe of knowledge grows, says Popper.

On the contrary, if instead, I had made the claim, “The sky is sometimes blue”, you’d never be able to disprove (falsify) my claim (given its vagueness) and is thus bad theory.

Further exploration led me to understanding the difference between generalizable theory versus studying local effects:

The claim, “All ravens are black” is difficult to falsify[iii], as one would have to systematically look at every single raven in the world to make sure none of them are white. A potential way out would be the readily falsifiable hypothesis: “My pet raven is black”, but the findings are not generalizable and is certainly not really useful research (a candidate worthy of a student-level Ig Noble, perhaps ‽).

A better hypothesis, I learnt, would be “There is high certainty (Pbr>95%) that the ravens in Oxford are all black”— as it is testable, generalizable (somewhat) and falsifiable (potentially).

This understanding greatly helped me formulate an interesting hypothesis for my master’s degree dissertation, which was also one of the key expectations of this module.

During the week, cohort members were paired with potential supervisors and regular one-on-one meetings allowed for opportunities to discuss and short-list potential research ideas. For my final dissertation, I had the privilege (for which I’m immensely grateful) of being allocated to work under the supervision of the academic director of this programme and world-renowned mega-project expert, Professor Bent Flyvbjerg. Having heard of his exceptional standards for research, I was initially very nervous for my first supervisor meeting; but I really needn’t have been worried— Professor Flyvbjerg showed keen interest, dissected my dissertation idea in ways that I could have seldom imagined, swiftly pointed out the primary research directions and in no uncertain terms emphasized that the quality of my research rested squarely on the quality of my data and the sanctity of the process—this overarching statement, was in fact, the very focus of Dr Blackmon’s module.

In the afternoons, to further help solidify the concepts taught in class, the cohort, divided into teams, worked on an actual research idea, taking it from concept to analysis, which finally culminated in the various teams presenting their methodologies, in front of the class, on the last day of the course.

One team presents their choice of research methodologies for a sample research problem

One team presents their choice of research methodologies for a sample research problem

One team took a very humorous approach to presenting their findings, providing much needed comic relief

One team took a very humorous approach to presenting their findings, providing much needed comic relief

On the social front, St. Anne’s students hosted a barbeque—the food, wine and company were all nothing short of stellar. The evening continued in the St. Anne’s student’s bar, where Fußball games interspersed with tequila shots entertained us, late into the evening.

Cohort members socialize in the area adjacent to the beautiful, sprawling lawns of St. Anne’s

Cohort members socialize in the area adjacent to the beautiful, sprawling lawns of St. Anne’s

Cohort members and Dr Atif, MPM Programme Director, socialize in the area adjacent to the beautiful, sprawling lawns of St. Anne’s

Cohort members and Dr Atif, MPM Programme Director, socialize in the area adjacent to the beautiful, sprawling lawns of St. Anne’s

Cohort members socialize in the area adjacent to the beautiful, sprawling lawns of St. Anne’s

Cohort members socialize in the area adjacent to the beautiful, sprawling lawns of St. Anne’s

Fußball games interspersed with tequila shots, provided entertainment late into the evening, Picture courtesy: Angelo Welihindha, MSc MPM Cohort member

Fußball games interspersed with tequila shots, provided entertainment late into the evening, Picture courtesy: Angelo Welihindha, MSc MPM Cohort member

By the end of the week, over Dr Blackmon’s lectures, the associated readings and activities, we understood what it took to define an original research problem, conduct ethical research, analyse the findings with rigour and present the conclusions without prejudice or bias. Each one us left the module, empowered with the capability to make those slight but nevertheless progressive contributions, towards our chosen topic— like ceaseless ripples designed to etch the boundaries of knowledge, on the shores of mega-project management.


[i] The author has no formal affiliation with the establishment other than using it as a place of choice, for engaging in mindless conversations, philosophical debates and consuming alarming quantities of student-priced gin with certain other fellow cohort members.

[ii] From Wikipedia: Published under the creative commons license, dedicated to the public domain.

[iii] A Google search showed that there are 4 known albino ravens, in this world, (and on a side note, one of them called  ‘Pearl Talon’ was “murdered” by a poacher’s gun in 2015 (http://www.audubon.org/news/rare-albino-raven-murdered) — thus falsifying the claim that “All ravens are black”.  An added benefit of this falsification is the learning that albino ravens exist.

 

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