Have we become Helicopter Researchers?

“Helicopter Parents” is the derisive term for those over-protective parents who won’t let their children experience any failure – or even any actual challenge.  The helicopter critique is supported by anecdotes of parents overly involved in children’s homework or parents intervening too vigorously when children have disappointing experiences in school or sports.  “Participation Trophies” given to every member of a sports team are held up for special ridicule.

I’m actually ambivalent about the helicopter parent critique.  Self-reliance is certainly a good thing.  But I doubt it’s possible for a child to be too much loved or encouraged.

I think, however, that the helicopter critique does apply to the way we researchers often over-protect our theories.  Loving our theories too much, we protect them too vigorously from empirical challenge.  If we start with the aim of supporting theory rather than testing it, then our research design and methods emphasize orthodoxy over rigor.  The result is comfortable confirmation without any real learning.

Intervention research seems especially prone to misplacing the theory cart before the evidence horse.  Theory is often cited as preliminary evidence that an intervention will prove effective, thereby justifying research designed to confirm theory rather than test it.  A subsequent confirmatory finding is welcomed as “positive”.  A “negative” finding more often prompts minor adjustments in methods rather than altering or abandoning the motivating theory – because the research was designed to coddle the theory rather than reject it.  That’s the research equivalent of a Participation Trophy – all theories must be winners just for having tried.

Theory was made to be broken – or at least rigorously tested.  Some of our theories will stand up to rigorous challenge.  Some will reveal their limitations and need for modification.  Some may just collapse.  Let’s really try to find out.

Greg Simon

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