by Obabire Ayeyemi
My mother once told me a story about my five-year-old self. An uncle scolded me for refusing to hand him the morning paper immediately as I was reading it. I expected him to wait until I was done reading it that morning. However, he could not, at the time, understand a five-year-old reading a newspaper. Many times, like my uncle, non-researchers are unable to comprehend the child-like curiosity of researchers who chase after every bit of information and the scientific fact they can lay their hands on. How does a cloth trader explain to the neutral observer that he began using microscopes, that he built for the purpose of assessing the quality of fabrics, to examine samples of water, semen and meat? Eventually, he discovered micro-organisms, and he contributed significantly to the advancement of the germ theory of disease which laid the foundation for the study and treatment of infectious diseases and has helped save hundreds of millions of lives.
“How does a cloth trader explain to the neutral observer that he began using microscopes, that he built for the purpose of assessing the quality of fabrics, to examine samples of water, semen and meat?”
“Careful or diligent search for knowledge”, “collection of information about a subject matter”, “creation of new knowledge”. These are various definitions for research which, on face value, appear to be different but fundamentally address the same topic in a way that is analogous to the blind men who went to feel an elephant in a zoo. Each describes a different perspective of what research is. The diligent search for knowledge is the fundamental motive of all research, e.g. the need to understand disease processes or the search for safer treatments. While the collection of information from various sources is now the foremost means of collecting this valuable knowledge and the result is often the creation of new knowledge.
Over the course of millennia, mankind has been able to evolve its process of research. We have evolved, over the millennia, from a society that religiously believes in the absolute truth of myth and superstition to one that quests for knowledge through observation and logic. Now, we have the scientific method. In tandem with these changes, the custodians of knowledge have evolved from priests and religious leaders of old to philosophers and finally scientists/academics. In spite of the enormous leaps in scientific and technological capabilities of humankind, there are far too many unanswered questions, e.g. “What is the precise relationship between the brain and experienced emotion?”
“Over the course of millennia, mankind has been able to evolve its process of research.”
Clearly, research requires a healthy dose of inquisitiveness, an understanding of the process of collecting information and an ultimate commitment to advancing the frontiers of knowledge while accepting the evidence irrespective of where it leads. However, I think it is far more critical for researchers to always be mindful of the fact that scientific facts have an uncanny tendency to be fickle. Therefore we must also be open to the possibility that the sacrosanct truths of today may become relegated to the bins of myth. Our response to research that throws up findings different from what we already know should be: “How is this possible?” rather than: “that is not possible”.
Dr Obabire Ayeyemi works at the Department of Behavioural Sciences, University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital, Ilorin. He is an active member of the Research Collaboration Network.