A measure of truth: the challenge for researchers by Colum Kenny

A measure of truth: the challenge for researchers

Address by Colum Kenny
on the occasion of receiving  the President’s Award for Research,
Dublin City University, 1 February 2005.
The THORP reprocessing plant at Sellafield is enormous. Inside it, there is a massive storage pond bigger than a football pitch, Stepping out onto a platform above that enclosed pond, what struck me most was the eerie silence. There is so much pent-up power and danger stored there, in row after row of tall steel flasks under clear water. Yet, the sight itself tells you little or nothing about the reality of nuclear energy.

In the course of undertaking research for my recent book on Sellafield and its hazardous spent fuel dumps (1), I was reminded of my limitations as a researcher. Which of us has enough knowledge to come to reliable conclusions about such a complex place? And how does one decide what are the most relevant questions to ask about it?

Even in cases where a whole interdisciplinary team of researchers works on a particular project, it is still necessary to make judgements about ultimate priorities and values.

The really hard science of research is one that asks questions about the selective objectives of our own research projects and about the applications and values of our results. It asks “Why?” and “What for?” as well as “How?”.

In discussing research this morning, I must necessarily be somewhat subjective. After all, the Vice-President for Research has asked me specifically to talk about some of my publications. But any single academic’s efforts may be better understood by being viewed within the broader context of collegiate attempts to understand the world around us, and to glimpse what lies behind appearances.

We academics come at truth from different angles. But truth remains the most essential ingredient in our research mix. If we cannot be reasonably confident that the answers which we give to our own questions are true, then the published results are likely to be of limited value.

I do not mean to imply that confidence in our own conclusions is everything. Take Richard Dawkins, for example. Dawkins is a zoologist who happens to have considerable communication skills, and his sharply scientific mind is applied mercilessly and most self-confidently to routing the purveyors of humbug. Reading his work can be very enjoyable. But I still suspect that “there are more things in heaven and earth, [Richard], than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (2).

We researchers benefit from a little Socratic humility. A brush with psychology, sociology and linguistics (among other branches of the humanities) can help us to recognise just how subjective and limited our apparently objective work may be. That river out of Eden is tricky to navigate.

Of course, it is easier to be certain about the truth of some answers than it is of others. Basic research, sometimes simplistically called “hard science”, is both comforting and very necessary. When we enter this room, for example, we want to be sure that the floor will not collapse beneath our feet and that the lights will not fail. Instrumental research can result in inventions that are both patently useful and profitable. Such research has led to advances in public health and safety.

But, even in such an obvious context, the truth is not always what it seems. Even in very basic research, it is frequently necessary to balance at least two or more related truths and to make a qualitative judgement.

Academics are fully aware of such dilemmas. The ethical and other implications of our work are important to us. We may be concerned, for example, about “the interaction of biosciences with the broader society”, as Donnacha O’Driscoll, General Manager of the National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology (NICB) at Dublin City University recently put it (3).

But too often, despite our best intentions, the questions that we ask and the truth that we hear depend on our subjective preferences and self-interest. Speaking as a communications researcher who frequently tests media theory in the furnace of media practice, I am acutely aware of the nuances of perception and interpretation.

And the more complex a matter is, the more our questions multiply and the greater the need for moral and ethical judgements. The humanities help to inform such judgements. The arts, cultural studies, communications, jurisprudence, theology and other disciplines all contribute particular insights and methodologies to the search for truth and happiness. Each highlights the complexities of reality in a somewhat different way.

When it comes to our daily work, of course, we often specialise for practical reasons. They say that “a Jack of all trades is a master of none”. But Jack and Jill also need to bear in mind the multifaceted nature of reality. This was vividly brought home to me when I trained as a lawyer and worked for some years at the Irish Bar.

It is a mistake to assume that lawyers simply learn statutes off by heart and then apply them like paint to a wall. In fact, as the courts try to administer justice, lawyers quickly learn of the many ways in which laws are interpreted, relative to various perspectives, ideologies or self-interest. One also discovers the remarkable ability of witnesses to convince themselves that things really were the way they now want them to have been, and one sees just how fluid are even honest men and women’s perceptions of reality when under pressure in a witness box.

Yet, lawyers must still try to arrive at a point where the truth is established beyond reasonable doubt, or at least on the balance of probabilities, – otherwise even relative justice would not prevail and society would become unworkable. The practice of law involves the interpretation and application of general principles to actual situations, not the fitting of circumstances to theories. Legal research, if it is to yield a result that is satisfactory, must take into account the subtleties of practice and perception.

As a founding member of the Irish Legal History Society, I have with others played an active part in exploring the role that lawyers and law have played in Ireland down the centuries. It has been a very important role, one largely neglected until very recently by general historians. A number of my published works deal with aspects of it, including the book entitled King’s Inns and the Kingdom of Ireland (4). In a colonised society such as Ireland, where political rights were long curtailed or denied, an organisation like King’s Inns may play a significant role as a focus of social relationships. King’s Inns was founded in 1541 and is one of Ireland’s oldest institutions. Its story had been attempted before, in an unreliable and almost unreadable book published in 1806. I started afresh, literally donning a dust-mask and rubber gloves to sift through some of the ancient documents that were then stored in old tea chests in a basement under King’s Inns Library. I also placed the story of Ireland’s legal profession it in a broader cultural and social context than hitherto.

History, whether that of the law or of any other subject, ought not to be merely a recitation of “one damn fact after another”, as cynics complain. At its best, history is a matter of informed interpretation, a sort of social psychology that elicits hypotheses about how things have happened and about how things might happen in the future. It is a vital interdisciplinary tool that can be as useful to the natural sciences as to the social sciences.

Evolutionary biology, for example, is just one area in which firm dualistic divisions between branches of knowledge break down. And when Professor Nicholas Negroponte blames the demise of Media Lab Europe (MLE) on “freakishly untimely” investment circumstances and the “lifestyle” of Europeans (5), one is reminded of the potential benefits for those working at the interface of science and technology of being open in humility to the broad insights of history, economics and cultural studies when first setting out on a course of action.

Having left off practising law, in the late 1970s, I was soon struck yet again in my new working environment by the passionate subjectivity of people’s versions of reality. Recruited by RTÉ, I was obliged by law to make current affairs programmes that, in the words of the broadcasting legislation, must be “objective and impartial” (6). I need hardly say that the framers of the relevant law did not include a definition of objectivity in their “interpretation” sections of the relevant statutes.

In my experience, the judgements that journalists make about what to include in their reports are frequently a compromise between the truths that they feel are most germane and the truths in which the public is most interested. Journalists make such judgements because media workers are engaged in acts of communication and not merely in declarations of their points of view, and they quickly learn how many different perspectives on reality there are.

Nevertheless, despite people’s subjective interpretations, the concept of objective truth is a socially valuable one and ought not to be abandoned simply because reality is complex, or because our attempts to arrive at the truth are imperfect or relative.

One reaction to anxieties caused by the discomfort of perceiving the complexities of reality is to retreat into a physical or logical cocoon. For academics, a physical cocoon may take the form of a research team or a laboratory where one consoles oneself that one is engaged in culturally or socially unproblematic matters of fact-finding. Yet, even then, in order to remain aloof, one may need to ignore truths concerning the determinist nature of research funding and priorities, as well as the application of results.

Another way for intellectuals to avoid the untidy complexity of life is to take what one perceives to be a purely “rational” approach to the question of truth, dismissing everything as redundant that cannot be readily encompassed within the Greek concept of “logos”. This can lead to a materialist or even mechanistic view of the world. As a methodology, reliance on “logos” has helped to sustain the Western world’s dominance over other regions. But, particularly in the light of our experiences in the twentieth-century, many people, including physicists and social scientists, have come to attenuate earlier evaluations of such a restricted approach to knowledge and research. The dualistic gulf between science and religion is not always as wide as it may seem.

There are truths about our existence that cannot be seen through any microscope or deduced from any first principles. Such hidden truths may be mystified and spun for all kinds of undesirable reasons but they remain truths, and they are glimpsed as such by poets and writers as well as by religious people. The language of myth also expresses them. An over-dependence on “logos” ultimately limits the value of research. The braying suppression of myth, and the denial of life’s spiritual dimension is not merely unwise philosophically but it has helped to breed its intolerant opposite in the form of fundamentalism.

One of the best-known moments of perplexity in the face of truth occurred when Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus Christ, shortly before authorising his crucifixion. In one of the most dramatic biblical scenes, which is well worth reading in its own right even as a literary construct, Pilate cries out, exasperated, “What is truth?” (τι εστιν αληθεια). But Jesus remains silent. Indeed, in the three synoptic gospels, the word “truth” is rarely mentioned and when it is used at all in the gospels it is to emphasise the value of true or authentic living (in the way of Christ) rather than adherence to philosophical or abstract concepts.

The difficulty of knowing how to recognize truth is a perennial problem. As the field of human knowledge continues to be subdivided, and as we are overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of research and its related mass of publications in particular areas, there is a need for us to find ways of anchoring our research in the actual human condition, to balance the intellectual aspect with other aspects of our existence. This is necessary for our physical health as much as for our sanity. We must take moral responsibility for what we do with our brains.

In this respect, it is worth remembering that Europeans long favoured a broad approach to education. The need to avoid too narrow a scientific or technocratic focus in training was appreciated by doctors and lawyers among others, and this fact was reflected in the stock of their professional libraries. That is a phenomenon that I have reflected upon in my 2002 book, King’s Inns and the battle of the books (7), which examines the rationale and contents of the highly controversial sale of non-legal volumes by the honourable society of lawyers, in 1972. That sale reflected the narrowing of perspective that has afflicted many areas of study as the requirements of contemporary society seem to grow ever more specialised.

If we are confined within too specialised or narrow a focus, then like Pontius Pilate we may fail to grasp the existential aspect of the search for truth. Pilate had never arrived at that moment of insight at which those who seek answers recognize their own presence in the equation of their quest and take responsibility for it with their lives.

Estimating the truth of research sometimes requires the cultivation of an interior or intuitive aspect to our work that is similar to that which artists experience. Recently, the novelist John McGahern explained such intuition when he said,
Often the way one knows whether one is true or not is that one comes on certain sentences or paragraphs or scenes that ring right, and one leans on those scenes to try to get the poorer prose right. Certain passages you use like a tuning fork. (8)

McGahern’s image of the tuning fork is a valuable one for researchers. It reminds us of the position and value of the subject, while simultaneously requiring the harmonisation of our perspectives with a broader objective reality. So, as can be seen, I am by no means advocating the sort of paradoxical “absolute relativism” which is sometimes called “Postmodernism”. It is not enough simply to recognise or even respect a variety of meanings or interpretations. Each perspective cannot be equally true or valid.

In all of this there is a particular challenge for academics, many of whom have been so deeply influenced by the Enlightenment paradigm that they do not realise how socially conditioned or constructed their own minds may be in respect to human experience, and how dualistic their thinking often is. We academics are no less inclined than lawyers or journalists to subjectivism. But the scale of human and environmental suffering, actual or potential, as well as the strength of some current resistance to purely secular ways of understanding, requires us urgently to review our assumptions and methodologies.

Old divisions are not always beneficial in the pursuit of knowledge, whether these divisions lie between science and religion or between specific academic disciplines (or indeed even between government departments).

That is one of the reasons why a number of academics internationally, including myself, are currently engaged in an exploration of the relationship between belief and society. The task is necessary not least for political reasons, in the light of current global developments, but also because of the intellectual limitations of assertive secularism.

Understanding faith means, among other things, learning to distinguish between such concepts as religion and religiosity or mysticism and mystification. It does not mean abandoning rational discourse or justificatory methodology, but it does mean seeing faiths and belief systems as more than simply arcane social phenomena. It accepts that religions are forms of language or sign or symbol through which certain truths may be expressed, truths that in some cases are not and may never be amenable to discourses that are purely philosophical or sociological.

My growing interest in the area has been reflected in my authorship of two books that have dealt with aspects of the historical relationship between religion and Irish society, among other matters. One was entitled Kilmainham: the history of a settlement older than Dublin and the other Molaise, abbot of Leighlin and hermit of Holy Island (9). By the way, the Leighlin of that second title is in Co. Carlow and was, in effect, the capital of Leinster in the sixth and seventh centuries. Holy Island lies by the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde and has recently been acquired by Tibetan Buddhist refugees as an interfaith retreat centre. I have also been involved in experiments in interfaith communication, including as a participant in certain dialogue sessions that invoilved the Dalai Lama in India and elsewhere and, also, as a long-term council member of the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, for whom I edited the proceedings of their “Believers’ Enquiry”, published in 1998 (10).

In the context of developing the study of religion within academia, the appearance of a new collection of essays by Jürgen Habermas in 2002 was very encouraging (11). Habermas, who describes himself as a ‘admirer’ of Thomas Aquinas and who is a renowned philosopher in his own right, has greatly influenced communications theory. These essays clarify his ‘Theory of Communicative Action’ and make clear his respect for the theological realm and its associated religious experiences. For example, he writes that,
Today the ecclesial communities are in competition with other communities of interpretation that are rooted in secular traditions. Even viewed from outside, it could turn out that monotheistic traditions have at their disposal a language whose semantic potential is not yet exhausted, that shows itself to be superior in its power to disclose the world and to form identity, in its capability for renewal, its differentiation and its range. (12)

He accepts further that the potential of such language may never be exhausted, thus differing from those who somewhat patronisingly allow that religion simply hints at certain matters that will one day (without a doubt) be explained completely by means of secular or ‘scientific’ discourses. His is quite a different perspective from that which has dominated much recent philosophical thinking. As Richard Campbell pointed out, in 1992, in his magisterial study of truth and historicity, the whole temper of the twentieth-century was “anti-metaphysical”.

Campbell, Dean of Arts and Reader in Philosophy at the Australian National University, wrote that the last century saw “no need for philosophical systems which purport to describe the basic structure of what there is”. He adds,
That anti-metaphysical temper was expressed not only by the logical positivists, who declared all such attempts strictly meaningless. It is to be found also in Wittgenstein – who was not all at a positivist – and in such diverse continental philosophers as Heidegger, Sarte, and the Frankfurt School. And in a more scientistic form, it is manifest in the current fashion for ‘naturalistic’ theories of knowledge. (13)

Jürgen Habermas himself belongs to a line of German social critics and philosophers that has been influenced, through the milieu of their ancestors, by Jewish mysticism. He is also inspired by classical imagery, as when he highlights the dangerous passage we intellectuals must negotiate when we attempt to arrive at an integrated research perspective. He says,
The shallow and the profound have their own pitfalls. I have always attempted to steer between the Scylla of a levelling, transcendence-less empiricism and the Charybdis of a high-flying idealism that glorifies transcendence .,,,, the theory of communicative action integrates the transcendental tension between the intelligible and the world of appearances in communicative everyday praxis, yet does not thereby level it out. (14)

These is not time, today, to illustrate how, ‘on the other side’ (as it were), metaphysicians such as Joseph Bracken are responding to philosophers like Habermas by developing process theologies based on intersubjectivity (15).

So. instead, allow me now draw towards a conclusion by remarking that, since I was approached and invited to join this institution in Glasnevin during its opening phase more than twenty years ago, I have attempted with some colleagues in the Faculty of Humanities and elsewhere to sustain a broad programme of research. It is a programme that can be continued and even expanded, resources permitting. We have cultivated courses in journalism, film studies, multimedia and communications – including the interface of communications and science – among other areas. Any society that fails to grasp the intrinsic value of the humanities, in their full breadth – including Communications and Classics, Celtic Studies and the visual arts, – is unlikely to sustain a healthy environment for the growth of research in either the humanities or the sciences.

I wish to express my appreciation to Dublin City University for the opportunity that it has afforded me to engage in research in the humanities, and to thank those in the School of Communications who have encouraged my research in any way.

The holy ground of Dublin City University is a very appropriate place on which to attempt integrated or interdisciplinary forms of research. For 167 years, this has been the site of educational activities.

In 1838, John Pitt Kennedy, the first inspector-general of the nascent Irish National School system, acquired land here for the state (a fact that we celebrate in the name given to our staff dining area, ‘The 1838 Club’). John Pitt was one of a remarkable trio of brothers, of whom the others were Evory (sometime master of the Rotunda Hospital) and Tristram (a member of parliament and founder of both the Dublin Law Institute and the Carrickmacross Lace industry). It was Tristram’s record of innovation and reform that inspired me to write a book on aspects of professionalisation in Ireland in the nineteenth century (Tristram Kennedy and the revival of Irish legal training, 1835-1885) (16). Indeed, it is interesting to note similarities in the discussions then about legal education and those about media education now, especially as regards the boundaries of ‘relevance’ and practicality. In respect of Tristram, incidentally, I was also very happy to be asked to write a new entry about him for the recently revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (17), in the earlier editions of which he had been overlooked.

When Tristram’s brother, John Pitt, bought the land on which Dublin City University now stands, it was for the specific purpose of building a central model farm and training establishment for National School teachers. The teachers were to be taught how to give instruction to children not only in reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic but also in practical and innovative methods of agriculture.

The Kennedy brothers had a broad view of education. And we academics today must also take a balanced and holistic approach to our work if our search for the truth is to be authentic and fruitful. For science and the humanities are two aspects of the same Mind.

Thank you.
A measure of truth: the challenge for researchers
By Colum Kenny.
Fearing Sellafield (Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 2003).
cf. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, sc. 5, vv 166-9, where Horatio is addressed. In River out of Eden (London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1995), for example, Dawkins has considered how evolution works.
DCU general email of 13 January 2005.
King’s Inns and the Kingdom of Ireland: the Irish ‘inn of court’ 1541-1800 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1992).
Irish Times, 17 January 2005, p.16.
Broadcasting Authority Act 1960, s.18 (1) as amended by the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1976, s.3 (1).
King’s Inns and the battle of the books, 1972: cultural controversy at a Dublin library (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2002).
“John MacGahern: a private view”, RTÉ 1, 11 January 2005 (Produced by Hummingbird/Harvest Films for RTÉ).
Kilmainham: the history of a settlement older than Dublin (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1995); Molaise, abbot of Leighlin and hermit of Holy Island: the life and legacy of St Laisren in Ireland and Scotland (Killala: Morrigan Books,1998. Reprinted 1999).
The role of believing communities in building peace in Ireland (Wicklow: Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, 1998).
Jürgen Habermas, Religion and rationality: essays on reason, God and modernity, edited and with an introduction by Eduardo Mendieta (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002).
Ibid, pp 70-71; ibid, p.152 for the reference to Aquinas.
R. Campbell, Truth and historicity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p.3.
Habermas, Religion and rationality, p.91.
See, for example, J. A. Bracken, The One in the Many: a contemporary reconstruction of the God-World relationship (Grand Rapids & Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001).
Tristram Kennedy and the revival of Irish legal training, 1835-1885 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1996).
Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Prof. Colum Kenny BCL. BL. PhD
Associate Professor of Communications

Winner of the DCU President’s Research Award (humanities, social sciences and related areas) 2004/5.
President’s address etc.   (DCU news archive)
Prof. Colum Kenny, School of Communications, Glasnevin, Dublin 9.
email: colum.kenny@dcu.ie.      Phone/Voicemail: +353.1.7005235.
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