Can we be passionate and skeptical?

During discussions in grant review panels, I’ve often heard an investigator described as “passionate” about their proposed work.  That “passionate” label is usually spoken as praise and endorsement.  But that word sometimes worries me.

We mental health researchers should certainly be passionate about problems we hope to solve.  Passion helps us to stay focused on our real goal: improving the lives of people with mental health conditions.  Without that motivated focus, we can be distracted by bureaucratic frustrations or academic politics.  We certainly have plenty of unsolved problems to passionately focus on, including the stigmatization of people who live with mental health conditions, the disappointing effectiveness of our current treatments and the sorry state of our mental health care system. 

But passion about research questions must be distinguished from passion about any specific answers.  Loyalty to any particular belief or theory is a problematic motivation for research.  Scientific theories and beliefs are made to be tested and then refined or discarded.  Rather than asking what study could prove I’m right, I should ask what study could show me where my beliefs or theories don’t hold up to evidence.  We do research to learn where we are wrong, not to confirm that we already believe.

And we should certainly not be passionate about specific programs or treatments, especially those we helped to create.  While we may hope that some new treatment or program will be helpful, we must be open to the possibility that it will fail.  Studies of “failed” treatments or programs are often more informative than so-called successes, but only if we are willing to see them clearly.  We should be especially skeptical when testing treatments or programs in which we have vested interest – even if that interest is just personal pride rather than financial reward.

Nor should we be passionate about defending the findings of our past research.  It’s inevitable that much of my past research will turn out to be incorrect or incomplete.  What’s not inevitable is whether I’ll be the first to discover something new or the last to acknowledge progress. 

That’s the challenging but essential balance:  remaining both passionate about why we do mental health research and skeptical while we are doing it.  It’s a New Year’s resolution that requires renewal every year.

Greg Simon

2 thoughts on “Can we be passionate and skeptical?”

  1. What a thought-provoking article. I have wondered about the intersection of passion for a project and a healthy skepticism that must accompany it. It seems to me that humility, and a good dose of it, would contribute to the delicate balance that mental health research requires.

  2. Really good point Greg. There is a complicated balancing act in research. I’m also seeing this same tension but even more so in quality improvement projects that organizations invest in and really want to see succeed. I think one way we can help is by not only focusing on the intended primary outcomes, but learning about any unintended consequences or negative outcomes.

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