The salty sea
Or, how not to do justice to the data of lived experience
Imagine a sea so salty that it dries out everything that enters it. Insatiably thirsty, it sucks the life-sustaining water out of any organism. As a consequence, the organism dies, but its remains are perfectly preserved. They’re like dried fish. You can neatly stack them on a rack and keep them for later use. It is possible to get some idea of what the corpse was like before happening upon the salty sea, but it will take some days of soaking in fresh water. And who’s got time for that nowadays?
To me, the salty sea is a metaphor for certain scientific practices that mangle the life out of data (see footnote for examples). What you are left with is a perfectly preserved parcel of knowledge. But this knowledge is so hardened and dry that ingesting it will make you sick. If you don’t observe the proper soaking procedure and if you don’t stop eating after your body starts sending warning signals, it will kill you eventually.
As a scientific researcher, you are expected to consume fair amounts of dried fish. It’s a staple food in the academic diet. Since you don’t have time to soak it, you grow accustomed to eating it straight from the rack. You can even make yourself think it is tolerable, even though it is clearly very unhealthy. Quite likely, you will develop some digestion problem, but for that you can take pills. You can live with it until it becomes unbearable.
I have realised that I can no longer stand eating dried fish.
To name a few examples of salty sea practices: clinging to stifling and disconnecting writing conventions; using of jargon; lack of appreciation of humour; separating between subject and object; pretending that objectivity is possible; bias towards rationality; prioritising intellect over other forms of knowing, such as imaginal, intuitive, and experiential knowing; pretending that experiential knowledge is merely subjective and relative; erasing the personal out of the political; pretending to be unpolitical; favouring models over cases; continuing to feed on a canon dominated by white men; keeping up an appearance of importance; perpetuating gross anthropocentrism; lack of awareness of how to communicate in an engaging manner; creating a culture of adversarialism under the disguise of criticality; underappreciation of mystery and unpredictability; failing to acknowledge mess, unclarity, and not knowing; perpetuating methods of enquiry that are not conducive of creativity; pretending that abstractions and generalisations hold greater validity than staying with the phenomena; pretending that statistics are facts and not a matter of interpretation; questionnaires; stifling ethics procedures; Kafkaesque administrative procedures; putting knowledge behind paywalls; perpetuating a system of insiders and outsiders; keeping up forms and conventions that cause the problems of disconnection in the first place. A lot of people are aware of these issues – they have been discussed from the beginning of science – but despite knowing better, many academics keep on reproducing the dying system.