Friday, July 22, 2005

Messy world of facts

Here are a few thoughts on how new knowledge is built, which is highly relevant for PDS research. Also check out my past post on myth creation, too.

Understanding PDS is really about knowing a set of facts. But what is a fact? A fact is a statement that is true. This definition is correct, but not very useful in practise. A more realistic statement would be that a fact is a statement that all (or the vast majority of) experts agree to be true. This is how it works, but is not 100% correct, as a person not considered an expert by the experts or the general public could come up with a new fact that experts disagree with, or disagree with a fact accepted to be true by the experts. The non-expert has to either convince the experts that s/he is right or the general public that the so-called experts are not experts and that s/he is an expert. This is ultimately a social process i.e. manipulating people to share one's own view. This can be done by valid arguments or by arguments that might not be valid but that are convincing. Invalid arguments can be used on purpose or believing that they are true.

Take myself, for example. Am I an expert? I am neither a researcher in PDS, nor a qualified therapist. So if a professor working on PDS comes along and says: "This is a fact and Tom is wrong. What does a PhD in physics know about PDS?". Who would you believe? The answer is that the strength of an argument should never be judged by considering the person making the argument, but by the argument itself. But it is hard to avoid this logical fallacy. For example, Freud said stuttering is due to a childhood conflict and I am saying Freud is wrong and has no clue about PDS. Who would the general public or you believe? But of course, the more expert someone is, the more likely his statement is the correct one, but it is not a seal of truth.

On the other hand, there are many people who claim to have solved the riddles of PDS and proclaim quick cures. They often say that they are getting silenced by the establishment. But of course, their theories are just wrong and riddled with logical fallacies like confusing correlation with causation (I started stuttering when my brother was born, therefore he is the cause of my stuttering. How about the millions of other people who didnt start stuttering when their brother/sister was born?), generalisation based on a small or biased sample (I stutter more when I talk to my dog and therefore all people with PDS stutter less with their dog. What is true for you, might not be true for everyone), accepting arguments based on authority (van Ripper said that, Prof XXX said that - I do not care who said it only what s/he said and which argument support their claim). Having said this, some professors certainly have their agenda and strong beliefs in their theories, so if you are a PhD student or post-doctoral researcher and disagree or work on another theory, you might not be able to find funding for more research... This is especially true if you tell the professor that the research area/theory s/he has worked on for 20 years is not relevant or wrong...

Therefore, the best way is empirical evidence to judge whether a pro-claimed fact is indeed true. But there is a big problem for PDS. It is not like physics, where you do a clear-cut experiment and you get a clear answer. Or like in engineering. If you are a bad engineer, the bridge falls down. There are no bridges in PDS research. It is science on the human being and far far more messy and complex. OK, there is one bridge: severity of dysfluency. If someone comes along that says PDS is this and I can cure it like this and it works, well s/he won. But no-one has really found this holy grail, and it might not actually exist. Short term fluency is easily achieved but long-term fluency consistently for all people is hard to achieve. So the reality is very messy. An important issue is also that the research findings should be replicated by other research groups. Facts are often formed by three driving forces "herd behaviour", "abilitity to project authority" and "strength of arguments and evidence". The ability for progress is the hope that strength of argument and evidence wins in the long term.

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