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Ethics, Knowledge and Truth in Sports Research by Graham McFee

Paul Davis commentates on some philosophy of sports research.

Graham McFee’s Ethics, Knowledge and Truth in Sports Research is ambitious, compelling, and exasperating. The discussion ranges over research, research ethics, philosophy of science, philosophy of social science, epistemology or theory of knowledge, and the connections between them. The book is rich and peripatetic. It involves a lot of debunking, but is not in any sense mean-spirited. McFee provides, in a crisp concluding chapter, a list of the theses for which he has argued. He has defended truth in social research against the Scylla and Charybdis of postmodernism and scientism. He has demonstrated that social research into sport is essentially erotetic (I’ll explain that soon), with methodological consequences. He has argued that Voluntary Informed Consent is not the gold standard in research ethics it is taken to be. He has defended the ethics of covert designs in sport research; and distinguished the researcher’s role as analyst from that of data-collector. In this review I want to briefly consider all these ideas.

The Dread Duo

McFee argues that postmodernism and scientism are two sides of a coin of thought that should be discarded.

I suspect that many of us have had robust exposure to the dread epistemological duo of scientism and postmodernism. Scientism is the doctrine that science is the only path to knowledge. McFee conceives scientism as a conjunction of assumptions about (i) the method of natural science, (ii) the kind of truths that result from this method, and (iii) the nature of truth. But first, the scientific knowledge on which all other knowledge is modelled is, as McFee emphasises, mistakenly conceived by scientism in naïve inductivist terms. It assumes that natural science relies on observations that are not themselves influenced by earlier theories, and that the truths discovered by it are of a universal character. And these scientific truths provide, in turn, the model for Truth itself. So scientism introduces a dual error – that all knowledge is scientific, and that scientific knowledge is itself naïve inductivist. This mutates into a triple error when the only supposed alternatives to such knowledge are the ‘no answers’ truth-denial or ‘all is arbitrary’ relativism of (some) postmodernism. In response to the naïve picture of scientific observation, McFee urges that even the ‘purest’ observation is theory-laden. He endorses Thomas Kuhn’s picture of scientific development. According to this, it involves a cycle of ‘normal’ science (taking place within an overarching framework of theories known as a paradigm); followed by a ‘crisis’ (dissatisfaction with the paradigm); and then return to normal science (research which proceeds within a new paradigm). However, the scientific laws that result are, McFee argues, not really universal: they allow of exceptions. This is because there is no finite set of conditions that if met, will guarantee that an event of type A is always followed by an event of type B. Natural science makes statements such as ‘A follows B’ true through ceteris paribus clauses. Ceteris paribus means ‘all other things being equal’, as in ‘A follows B, all other things being equal’. Such clauses are intended to set aside all those ‘other things’ which could interfere with A causing B. But this ambition requires that we can in principle identify all those other things. However, since there is no finite list of features for consideration, this ambition cannot be satisfied. Or as McFee puts it, “we cannot even know what cetera we require to be paria” (p.65).

A causal relation that admits of exceptions is called ‘stochastic causation’. McFee provides a potent example: that smoking causes cancer. McFee correctly notes that the traditional explanations of stochastic causation consider that even that type of causation would be exceptionless, if only we knew enough to formulate the causation specifically enough: it is ‘smoking-plus-X’ or ‘smoking-minus-X’ that causes cancer, where the X might stand for a large number of factors. If this approach is correct, then it is only our ignorance of X that prevents our stating the precise truth about the type of causation. But there is, concludes McFee, no reason to believe this. We commit to exceptionlessness only because such causal relations are the coin of natural science, oblivious to the contrivance this requires. There is therefore no universal Truth, as the scientistic model with its apparent promise of exceptionless laws seems to offer. Postmodernism gets this much right; but commits the non sequitur of concluding that therefore there are no truths at all. For McFee, there are truths in both natural and social science. Indeed, he repeats that scientific research essentially involves the discovery of truths (so he rejects Sir Karl Popper’s notion of a good scientific hypothesis as one that has not yet been falsified). But these are not truths on the model shared by scientism and postmodernism, for which ‘truths’ are essentially contextual.

Moreover, in McFee’s view, there are key differences between natural and social science. ‘Normal’ natural science is defined by the scientific community’s acceptance of a paradigm. This involves theoretical principles (for example, Newton’s principle of Universal Gravitation) and disciplinary principles (for example, that all physiological functions are to be explained in chemical terms). However, as Kuhn argued, there can be no ‘normal’ phase in social science, since there are never theoretical principles that are accepted by all practitioners. There are, instead, competing ways of seeing the social world, with endemic controversy over the fundamentals. Therefore, the widespread use in social science of the term ‘paradigm’ is inappropriate. Also, a participatory research style is often appropriate in social science, and controlled experiments especially inappropriate.

The analogy breaks down in another way too. Research into the social world is deeply dependent on perspectives; those of the researchers as well as those of the subjects of their research. The researcher’s perspective into a social group is inevitably incomplete, because both researcher and participant are agents with concerns, reasons and interests. Therefore the researcher cannot take his perspective as the only viable one. We can’t complete the picture by adding other perspectives, since there is no reason to think the perspectives are mutually consistent or (again) that there is a finite totality of perspectives. The upshot seems to be that whilst natural science can pretend to be able to identify all those ‘other things’ to be set aside as equal, social science cannot rise even to the pretence.

A little more on this would have been useful. McFee might profitably have contrasted the role of the ceteris paribus clause in ‘exceptionless’ causation (‘gravity causes downward motion’), with that in stochastic causation (‘smoking causes cancer’), and in social causation (‘poverty causes ill-health’).

One might worry whether McFee’s ‘Particularist Contextualism’ fully avoids the bogey of postmodernist relativism in the case of social science research. Saying that there is no such thing as universal, trans-historical and exceptionless causation certainly does not entail relativism. Nor does Kuhn’s philosophy of science, as McFee convincingly argues. Nor, indeed, does the acceptance of ‘human-sized truth’ (p.77) about the social world. Moreover, McFee does a quite nice exposure (pp.104-05) of some of the conceptual difficulties of relativism.

So far so good. However, relativism is defined by what it says about truth. If moral relativism is correct, then the truth of a proposition like “polygamy is permissible” depends entirely on the practices of the culture in question. There is no higher-order standpoint from which these practices can be morally sanctioned or rejected, and therefore no objective moral truth. Yet by McFee’s own lights, the truths of social science research (partly) consist of a standpoint which may clash with other, equally viable standpoints as I have said above. Just as with relativism, there is no higher-order standpoint from which to judge between them. Therefore, our ‘human-sized’ truths risk being chiselled down into the outcomes of contingent perspectives, whose contingency is music to the ears of the relativist. For sure, these truths are not ‘all arbitrary’, since they are anchored to perspectives, which in turn ground methods. But it is the epistemological status of the perspectives themselves which threatens to challenge McFee’s anti-relativist ambitions: how can you say one perspective is more authoritative than another in claiming knowledge? Again, McFee might have gained from clarifying this issue with more illustrations from social science in general and sport science in particular.

McFee queries the value of the traditional distinction in sports research between quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative research is about gathering data suitable for statistical analysis, but qualitative research deals with people, and recognizes “the importance of the contexts which are the sites of the subject’s characteristic behaviours – such as playing sport and training for it, or being a sports fan, or some such” (p.7). McFee argues that a more fundamental distinction is between research into questions answerable only in real-world sports settings, and research that can be conducted in other contexts. He elevates, too, a related distinction between research dealing with persons and research dealing with (say) parts of persons, such as muscle fibres.

Charles Fremont Pruner West
The point of sports research?

A flagship theme of the book is the erotetic nature of research. The brisk definition of this daunting word is ‘question-and-answer’. It’s just about what people say in answer to questions. Such research always depends on the context. One important upshot is that the very same words can in different contexts amount to different research questions, motivating quite different investigations, in the same way that “Why are you drunk?” can mean different things, and elicit different answers, when asked by my wife as opposed to my doctor. (If you’ve read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, this might remind you of what he wrote about language games.) Anyway, McFee believes that the erotetic nature of research has been inadequately appreciated until now.

Another aspect of talk research is the centrality of storytelling. Research subjects often tell stories. Talk and storytelling take us, once again, far away from scientism’s simplistic vision of a finte set of conditions allowing the discovery of lawlike relations. How do we get repeatability for starters?

A consequence of storytelling as research data is that the researcher must adequately understand the subject’s story. This may sometimes require that the researcher is (for instance) of a specific sex, ethnicity, or sexuality. McFee notes that this qualification is liable to be characteristic of much research into sport and leisure. At the same time, the subjects themselves may not have complete understanding of the stories they tell. This is more substantive than the recurring point that there is no finite totality of things that need to be understood. For instance, knowing that one is oppressed does not mean that one fully understands the mechanisms of one’s oppression. The researcher’s obligation here is to analyse, thus effectively re-drafting the story – for example, casting it as symptomatic of the oppressions of patriarchy.

In McFee’s view there are, however, strict limits upon the presentation of research. Drama, or even poetry, for instance, whatever their insights, are inappropriate vehicles of the presentation of research (although they may be starting points for research). This follows from the fact that we cannot move a poem or drama forward, as one can move forward a research project. But in particular, a research audience is entitled to receive a “consideration of research data and conclusions plus, perhaps, some methodological reflections” (pp.122-3), and it is hard to see how poetry or drama could provide those.

Another obvious ramification of researching persons as persons is ethical. McFee, however, is critical of the ‘gold standard’ of Voluntary Informed Consent. He has preliminary niggles about dependency of the concepts involved: do consent and voluntariness entail that one is informed? He also has more substantive conceptual and practical objections, for which he argues compellingly. Conceptually, there is no finite totality of conditions, “such that being fully informed is knowing them all or fully consenting is consenting in respect of all of them” (p.145). There is an infinite range of things that the potential participant in research could reasonably want to know. This point shades into the practical objection that the subject may not know which questions to ask. McFee also raises doubts about whether subjects are genuinely free to withdraw and whether they can really know the fate of the data. His prescription is that we think again about what Voluntary Informed Consent is aiming at in social science research, that we remain committed to the ethical treatment of subjects, and that we are receptive to the strengths and limitations of codes. (The approach here echoes McNamee’s virtue ethics approach to codes of conduct for sports coaches: see Ethics and Sport, M.J. McNamee and S.J. Parry, 1998, pp.148-68.)

McFee, in fact, defends the ethics of covert research into sport, in other words research where the true method or point of the research is deliberately hidden from the subject. He argues that this is sometimes necessary in some regions of sports research, on the familiar ground that otherwise the phenomena under investigation are likely to be disturbed. The ethical credentials of covert research are protected by the worth of the research, the constraints of debriefing, the avoidance of physical injury to subjects, and the extension to them of the other rights of persons.

A Sporting Summary

Substantively, I find myself in much sympathy with this book. Stylistically, however, the book is heavy going, and sometimes very heavy going. Top of the complaints list is far too many parentheses, whose content is frequently gratuitous or irritating. There are too many subordinate clauses, too. There are many irritating exclamation marks. There is huffing and puffing, and gratuitous repetition. There is regular misplacement of the modifier ‘only’. A particularly ugly few pages (pp.86-88) approximately half-way through the main text induced in me a brief despair for the second half. These sharp criticisms give me no pleasure. The book is a considerable and valuable achievement, otherwise more than befitting a scholar of McFee’s quality. It deserves to be read, and not merely by postgraduate researchers and their teachers.

© Dr Paul Davis 2018

Paul Davis is currently Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association and is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sunderland.

Ethics, Knowledge And Truth In Sports Research: an epistemology of sport, Graham McFee, Routledge, 2011 £32.99 pb, 240pp, ISBN: 978-0-415-49314-7

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