|Year : 2018 | Volume
| Issue : 5 | Page : 383-384
Do research workshops lead to research: Or is it like lecturing birds how to fly?
Department of Community Medicine, Dr DY Patil Medical College, Hospital and Research Centre, Dr DY Patil Vidyapeeth, Pune, Maharashtra, India
|Date of Web Publication||5-Sep-2018|
Department of Community Medicine, Dr DY Patil Medical College, Hospital and Research Centre, Dr DY Patil Vidyapeeth, Pune, Maharashtra
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
|How to cite this article:|
Banerjee A. Do research workshops lead to research: Or is it like lecturing birds how to fly?. Med J DY Patil Vidyapeeth 2018;11:383-4
Research methodology workshops have become common. Universities have made it mandatory for postgraduate students and faculty. In one recent workshop, I was enjoying a well-deserved cup of tea during a break. Having just finished a hands-on session on statistics as a resource person, I was feeling smug thinking that I had made the concepts simple and interesting to the participants. A couple of faculty members attending the workshop as participants joined me. One of them spoke, “Sir, we attended your lectures on research during our undergraduate days. Again during our postgraduation you conducted research methodology sessions for us. After all these years here we meet once more.” I looked at them for a moment and remarked, “What does that mean?” They were at a loss for words. One hesitantly replied, “We are privileged to have you as our research teacher through the years…” I interrupted him curtly, “Cut the flattery…it means that none of us are making any progress…the same participants, the same teacher…if you are still attending research workshops, what about patient care? And where is the research to show for the hours attending workshops?”
It is worth speculating whether we require more research workshops or more research work? Do these workshops increase research output?
Well, it does increase research knowledge. A recent study showed a significant improvement in knowledge about research methods after a short 4-day workshop. Similar short-term improvement in knowledge has been reported by other investigators. What do such studies illustrate? That short duration workshops improve short-term knowledge. Well, research knowledge is at best a surrogate and interim measure for actual research. What about the long-term impact? This question is difficult to answer. One hardly expects all those who undergo these courses to become researchers overnight. To establish the benefit, one would need a long-term “cohort study” (to use a jargon from these workshops!).
Let us look at the phenomenon of research from the other end. How many of those who did great research in the past underwent such workshops? Some of these path-breaking discoveries would not have been approved by any present-day research committee due to small sample size and imperfect research methods!! James Lind's research on scurvy had only 12 participants. On 20 May, 1747, he took 12 sailors and made six groups, with two people in each group, and put them under six different treatments. The two sailors who were given two oranges and one lemon every day recovered from the effects of scurvy most suddenly and visibly, and Lind concluded that scurvy could be prevented by adding lemons and oranges to the rations of sailors. This discovery led to enforcement of consumption of lime juice by British sailors changing the course of world history. Once protected from scurvy, British sailors who got the nickname “limey” sailed far and wide laying the foundation for the British Empire and establishment of its colonies. Had James Lind been an academic he would be attending and conducting research methodology courses in some university. He would not have sailed forth and discovered the prevention and cure of scurvy! William Osler famously stated, “…he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all!” …had James Lind only conducted research workshops…he would have not gone to sea at all to change the course of world history.
Another person who sailed forth with no exposure to research workshops was Charles Darwin. In fact, his was a more hopeless case according to modern standards of achievement where every second person (usually under pressure from parents) wants to be a doctor. After failing in medical school where he hated the lectures, he dropped out. For amusement, he sailed around the world for 5 years. He studied the fauna, flora, and fossils and kept meticulous records of his observations. This natural gift laid the foundation of his theory of Natural Selection and Evolution.
In more recent times, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs flew over the cuckoo's nest, i.e. dropped out of college. Had they continued with formal education we would be still hitting the keys on our Remington typewriters.
In 1943, Mahoney et al. reported cure of syphilis by penicillin on a sample of just three patients. The paper was published in the American Journal of Public Health. According to teachings of the present-day research methodology workshops, this paper would have been rejected due to a sample size of only three patients and lack of a control group.
Edward Jenner established that cowpox protected against smallpox on a still smaller sample of only one case. Contemporary editors of medical journals would hesitate to publish such an experiment as case reports are going out of fashion in this age of big data.
Birds do not have to be taught to fly. It is their innate potential. Similarly, humans also have the innate potential for observation and thought. A child is the keenest observer. Ignorance makes observation sharper and unbiased. Therefore, every human is born a researcher. It is formal education starting from the schooling which over the years kills observation and the research instinct. Caged birds may find it difficult to fly.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the prolific writer on uncertainty, a former professor himself, barely conceals his irreverence for academicians, particularly tie-wearing ones. He puts forth the proposition that academics in universities develop theories for everything post hoc to take credit for events which would have occurred anyway in natural course of things. They make us believe that skills and ideas that come natural to us such as observation and reasoning are due to lectures. He gives a hypothetical example of academics lecturing birds on how to fly, with scientific jargons and equations for good measure. The birds do fly, after which books and papers are written mentioning that birds have been trained by them and now these lectures and books are indispensable for bird flying. Nobody thinks of the possibility of the birds not needing these lectures. Nobody looks at the number of birds who have flown without attending these lectures. Taleb concedes that this example of lecturing birds how to fly does look preposterous. However, he elegantly makes the point that the same modus operandi is being followed in universities, in real life with humans, not birds.
So back to the question – do research workshops lead to research or is it like lecturing birds how to fly?
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