Research and Responsibility

Research and Responsibility October 18, 2010

Recent discussions about the influence a vague entity called “Correlation” has on various Bloggernaclers got me thinking about the problem of responsibility in research. I admit I’m personally less likely to blog about certain sensitive LDS issues. For example, there are elements of temple ritual I feel comfortable writing about and other elements I don’t. I personally don’t feel like my reticence is due to being trapped in the Panopticon. I admit I’m less likely to be flippant or brash about topics that may be particularly challenging to the faith of other Latter-day Saints, and beyond that, to the general faith of other believers as well (except for the new atheists. I wouldn’t mind trying to burst bubbles there; perhaps I should be more careful). The question I am confronting is the responsibility I have to the effects of the research I create, participate in, or disseminate.

I’d like to hear reactions to an assertion made back in 1929 by sociologist George Lundberg:

“It is not the business of a chemist who invents a high explosive to be influenced in his[!] task by considerations as to whether his product will be used to blow up cathedrals or to build tunnels through the mountains” (quoted in John Durham Peters, “The Part Played by Gentiles in the Flow of Mass Communications: On the Ethnic Utopia of Personal Influence,” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 2006, 100).

I disagree with Lundberg’s vision of a social scientist’s business. What if we extend the scope from social scientists to historians, theologians, philosophers, political scientists, etc.? Should these people allow considerations of effects to influence what they write or the way they write it? What undergirds the attitude  that “truth will always win out”?  Are there potential downsides to the desire to “let the chips fall where they may”? Of course, the question is not always whether a particular sticky subject is handled, it can also involve how it is handled. But is it our business to even consider such things when researching and writing?

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