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In What Ways May Disagreement Aid the Pursuit of Knowledge in the Natural and Human Sciences, Essay Example

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Essay

In the pursuit of knowledge, nothing is more effective than being motivated by the participation in a debate because this encourages the researcher to come with new ideas on how to demonstrate his or her arguments.  This helps progress and the advancement of the field through being constantly challenged and motivated to find a better, solution to the problem. However, disagreements are of different natures. They may appear as a result of the different methods that were used to advance a theory, or may appear because of the opposite personalities of two scientists. Disagreements may also take place over questions that do not concern the topic itself but rather revolve around adjacent problems, such as ethics. Depending on the nature of the debate, and on its outcome, disagreements may not be always helpful in the pursuit of knowledge. Below, I will show how disagreements were essential in the pursuit of knowledge in both human sciences and natural sciences. However, cases in which disagreements hindered progress and had a negative impact on the wellbeing of the human will also be given as examples in order to demonstrate that, though in general it is believed that disagreements have a beneficial role in the pursuit of knowledge, this is not always the case.

According to the theory of falsification, scientific facts can never be proven right but they can be proved wrong through experimentation. This means that scientists prove theories by showing that they were could not be proved wrong. Disagreement is thus essential in proving that a theory is correct because a theory that resists disagreement and cannot be proven wrong is a correct theory.

An example of a famous disagreement in the field of astronomy is the great debate between Harlow Sharpley and Heber Courtis in 1920.  This controversy was related to the scale of the Universe (Hoskin 1976:169). While Curtis maintained that the Milky Way comprised the entire universe and the other nebulae were isle galaxies within the Milky Way, Sharpley was determined to demonstrate that the Universe was much larger and the nebulae were galaxies in themselves, rather than parts of our own galaxies.  We now know that Sharpley was right in most of his assumptions although technological possibilities of the time did cause him to make some errors.  In the same way, even though Curtis was wrong, some of his theories concerning the stars in the nebulae were proved to be right. This shows the way in which disagreements are useful in advancing knowledge in a certain field. Even though it may happen that neither of the opponents is completely correct, and this occurs frequently since scientific claims are constantly being proved wrong, valorous pieces are kept and other clusters of knowledge are constructed around them.

In the field of human sciences, more exactly, in neuropsychiatry, an equally famous debate is that between Herman von Helmoltz and Ewald Hering which concerned visual perception. The disagreement arose over the mechanisms that stand behind color vision, over the nature of the perception of space as well as over the methods used to experiment on these issues, and involved not only these two scientists, but also their adherents(Turner 1993:84). According to Turner (1993:101), none of the writers were in the end victorious and debates concerning the topic remained open until the twentieth century when new methods of study allowed one view to become more influent than the other.

Anne Egger claims in an article that “The resolution to a controversy comes when one argument is widely accepted and other arguments fade away” (2010: n.p.). However, when scientists are not able to prove their claims in a definitive manner, disagreements may create a blockage in the field of knowledge and it is only by the invention of new methods that they may be able to discover which side was right and which was wrong. The blockage is not beneficial for the scientific community and for the society which cannot benefit from the knowledge gained through scientific debate. In such cased, the finding of a common ground or of an agreement between parties might prove more beneficial than the disagreement in the pursuit of knowledge.

For example, in John Willinsky’s work, the disagreement between researchers in the field of bilingual education concerning the various programs in use is not beneficial for the field. Rather, Willinksy claims, these disagreements harm not only the knowledge but also the society as a whole. He argues that “the problem is that these studies tend to cancel each other out or disappear in the grip of a meta-analysis that attempts to cull their different measures into a single set of calculations”(1999:41). Also, the author explains that a more “coordinate approach to the design” would have helped much more than the disagreements and that “we need to stop and ask whether some common ground can be found” (1999:41). Disagreements therefore do not help bilingual education research because the development of various programs only causes confusion in the system.

Disagreements occur all the time in both human and natural sciences as a result of the differences that appear when several people study the same topic. Although the disagreement appears because people generally have different opinions, opinions alone are not enough in a scientific debate. Scientists need objective arguments in order to be able to debate effectively and to demonstrate the accuracy of their opinions. Opinions are formed following a reasoning process and as a result of a perceived inaccuracy in another person’s reasoning. Disagreement is therefore a result of reason and perception. By reasoning, one comes to a conclusion that is different than that of another person using facts.  One can also disagree based on his perceived reality, which may be opposite to the perceived reality of another person. For example, I used to perceive my father as extremely tall when I was a very little, but I perceive him as rather short now. When I was little, I could easily disagree with anyone who called my father short and now, I might disagree with someone who calls him tall. However, perception alone is never enough is scientific debates. While perception is necessary in finding the scientific truth, scientific debates need facts which can be derived from experiments and observation in order to be meaningful. By using these methods, one may reach a result that is able to contradict previous assumptions and demonstrate that they are wrong.

My own experience with disagreement based on reason was theological in nature. Because I strongly disagreed with my opponent on matters related to religion, I tried to look for facts that proved my points. The debate which took place on the internet was similar to a scientific debate because it involved an audience formed by other users, of which some supported me while others supported my opponent.  Because I was motivated to demonstrate my point, I started to research more and more on the topic and tried to counter my opponent’s arguments one by one. Even though the debate between us was very intense and even caused users to switch from one side to another, no conclusion could be reached in the end. This is because our disagreement did not benefit from factual proof in the form of experiment which could actually demonstrate the claims beyond the possibility of further argument. In this respect, my theological debate was similar to debates in the field of philosophy, for example, because in this field too, disagreements never actually end. Scientific disagreements are different in the fact that researchers have factual ways of demonstrating their claims. However, my own debate showed me the benefits of disagreement because I was able to enhance my knowledge in the topic as well as that of the users who assisted to the debate and I was even able to change their pervious opinions on the topic.

Thus, disagreement may help the pursuit of knowledge in the human sciences and natural sciences because it allows researchers to come up with new ideas that might prove the falsity of a certain theory. Also, even when further advancements in the field show that both sides of the debate were wrong, certain issues rose in the disagreement or certain parts of the disagreement might prove correct or even important in the field. Disagreement thus gives the possibility of enriching the field even when no result was obtained through disagreement. However, as shown above, disagreement is not always beneficial for the pursuit of knowledge. When the disagreement affects the community, researchers should come together and find a resolution to the problem. Agreement may be the best practice in some human sciences such as psychology, education, or sociology because the disagreement of the researchers may cause a blockage in the advancement of the field or may even have direct serious consequences for patients or students, for example.

Reference List

Egger, A. 2010. Ideas in science: scientific controversy. Visiolearning. [online]. Available at: http://www.visionlearning.com/library/module_viewer.php?mid=181. [Accessed 8 Nov. 2012].

Hoskin, M.A. 1976. “The ‘Great Debate’: What Really Happened”, Journal of the History of Astronomy, 42(6), pp. 169-182.

Willinsky, J. 1999. Technology of knowing: a proposal for the human sciences. Boston: Beacon Press.
Turner, S. 1993. “Vision Studies in Germany: Helmholtz versus Hering”. Osiris, 8, pp.80-103.

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