The importance of descriptive research

“Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.”

— Ernest Rutherford

I start with this supremely arrogant, and surprisingly ignorant quote from a famous Kiwi scientist.  It’s ironic that he received the Nobel prize for chemistry not physics.

The old “just stamp collecting” line reminds me that a number of us have had research criticised or rejected by journals because of its descriptive nature.  Few marketing academics understand descriptive research, it doesn’t fit the simple picture they have in their heads of what research looks like.  They all want to be Einstein proposing radical new theories that require but a single experiment to validate.

Well science doesn’t work like that.  It needs lots of descriptive research upon which to build discover and document laws, and then build theories that fit the laws.

I’m going to try to explain the value of descriptive research with two examples which, in their day, undoubtedly did seem strange to some people.

Imagine that a young naturalist named Darwin proposed a voyage to far off lands to systematically study different species of plants and animals, with the aim, he said, of “understanding evolution”.  But by that time evolution was already obvious, at least to the Victorian cogni-centi, due to the fossils of animals that no longer roamed the earth; “so what can you learn” asked one reviewer, and “I don’t understand this expensive project, what’s the point, when we already know that things evolve?”.  Another said, “what are your independent and dependent variables, where is your manipulation? How can you possibly learn things about how species come into being simply by looking at species living today?”.

Imagine that Gregor Mendel asked the monastery fathers for permission to do experiments to document evolution.  He proposed to breed pea plants, each parent with different colour and/or smoothness of skin, and see what will happen.  “But how can this experiment fail?” asked a monastery father, “and if it can’t fail, what value can it have ? After all any farmer already knows that off-spring share features of their parents.”  
Another objected “you can not have an experiment without hypotheses” and he said “they must be theory-based, where is your theory?”.

I urge you to be proud of descriptive research.  Let’s work to educate our peers.  

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