On Keeping the Faith in Matters Scientific

Article excerpt

Evidence abounds that a segment of our field views the current status of communication research with alarm. Whether the specific issues involve the logic of theory construction, the methodologies employed in collecting and analyzing data, or the criteria used in assessing scientific evidence, the refrain is constant: prevailing research practices are fruitless and wrong-headed and our wrong-headedness will be remedied by an alternative approach that will lead to a tree scientific understanding of human communication. In other words, the lost souls responsible for promulgating heathen research practices of old are urged to repent and to accept the word of the philosophical and scientific messiahs who have come to save them.

A new gospel is compelling when sinners are convinced that they have really sinned or when they are persuaded that it is indeed new and better than the prevailing theology. Unfortunately, we find the scriptures of alarmists jumbled. Rather than presenting a ringing reaffirmation of our own faith, we will content ourselves with pointing out several of the confusions and ambiguities encountered in the critics' writings. There are two kinds of confusions and ambiguities: those associated with practices which are characterized as the "reigning paradigm" and those associated with certain alternative paradigms that have been advocated. Although our comments are relevant to the problem of assessing scientific evidence, they also relate to broader issues concerning the epistemological moorings of communication research.


Disciples of the new research order frequently warn that stubborn adherence to prevailing practices forces the researcher to worship at the pagan shrine of an outmoded, discredited logical positivism. Despite the religious fervor of their remarks, it is often difficult to discern just how or in what ways these critics equate current communication research practices with positivism. Indeed, some skeptics have dismissed the effort to make such an equation as a red herring which relies on a naive or distorted view of logical positivism. For instance, Robert Bostrom stated in a recent paper that "close attention to most of these polemics reveals a standard tactic: the construction of a far-fetched and altogether unrepresentative set of assertions which are blandly identified as the essence of the positivistic position."(1) As we attempt to untangle some of the ways that prevailing research practices have been linked with positivism, it will become apparent that we are at least partially sympathetic with Bostrom's indictment of this practice.

In some cases, allegiance to logical positivism is equated with paying homage to the covering law model of explanation. Typically, the argument proceeds as follows: (1) logical positivism champions the covering law model of explanation; (2) the covering law model demands universal, invariant generalizations; (3) no such generalizations have been discovered in communication; therefore, (4) the covering law model is deficient; and (5) logical positivism is deficient.

This argument is patently specious, both on intellectual and practical grounds. Nowhere in the literature of logical positivism does one encounter the claim that covering laws constitute the sole acceptable means of scientific explanation. In his classic analysis, Carl G. Hempel distinguishes three types of scientific explanation, two of which rely upon statistical or probabilistic premises.(2) An astute critic of the law-governed approach to theory construction, Donald Cushman, has characterized the logical positivist position regarding explanation thus: "According to this view [positivism], laws enunciate the uniform concomitance of phenomena, the prototype instance of which is either a universal implication (all A are B) or a problematic correlation [italics ours]."(3) Simply stated, total allegiance to the covering law model of explanation is not an inherent feature of a positivistic perspective, nor does knowledge of one's position regarding the efficacy of covering law explanations permit his or her classification as positivist or non-positivist. …