Some time ago, University Distinguished Professor Ken Friedman of Swinburne University asked me on the Jiscmail discussion list 'phd-design' to define what I mean by ‘epistemological validity’. It was a good question, and the role of reasons in literature seems like a good starting point to explain.
Reasons and their link with consequences have a central role in all literature and discussion, theoretical and otherwise. A primary purpose of all writing and discussion is explicitly or implicitly describing, explaining, using or justifying reasons and their consequences. This includes, the reasons why things happened or why they didn't; and why or why not they may happen in the future. This focus on reasons and their consequences appears to be a universal distinguishing factor between trivial and non-trivial communication. The proof of it seems to be that there don’t seem to be any exceptions.
An example, a phrase such as ‘the sky is blue’ only is significant, relevant and non-trivial if this fact or information offers an explicit or implicit reason for a consequence, as in:
The sky is blue. . . and that is the reason the weather will be fine today (consequence), or
The sky is blue . . . and the reason for that is the effect of the atmosphere (blue sky is the consequence), or
The sky is blue. . . and that is the reason I’m happy (consequence), etc
Interestingly, the recursive nature of describing, explaining, using or justifying reasons means all and any aspect of it can be reduced to a hierarchy of explaining reasons and their consequences.
In short, I'm suggesting the central role of all non-trivial literature and discussion is in explicitly or implicitly explaining reasons and their consequences. If you can think of an exception, I’d like to hear it.
Central to this is the idea of validity and coherence of reasoning in communications describing reasons and consequences. This can be seen in the role of describing reasons and consequences in communication between two people (say Alice and Bob). Their communication is only effective if:
- What is communicated by one party (Alice) is shaped in such a way that her implicit or explicit explanation of reasons and consequences are coherent and offer the possibility of validation in some way.
- The interpretation by Bob of Alice’s implicit or explicit explanation of reasons and consequences is done so in a way that Bob can test them for coherence and validity in some way.
The coherence and validity of someone’s explanations of reasons and consequences can be tested formally or informally.
There are many ways the coherence and validity of someone’s explanations of reasons and consequences are tested informally.
Some examples of possible informal tests are:
- Does the communication follow the usual rules of grammar?
- Does the pace and sequencing of ideas line up with what is currently considered culturally acceptable for that topic and situation?
- Have they communicated using the right sorts of words?
- Do they seem to be the right sort of person? Do they seem truthful, have high status, wear the right hat, have a religious background, come from the right class, etc?
- Does the communication trigger implicit or encultured responses that would make it believable without careful inspection?
These are indirect approaches that people use to informally make decisions about coherence and validity of a communication. These informal approaches are labelled in various ways: social validity, rhetoric validity etc.
Two characteristics of these indirect informal tests of validity are:
- They test validity of the communication in terms of something else. Any lack of strict correspondence between the communication and its proxy renders the test invalid, and,
- They are ineffective because the testers can be deluded and mislead by rhetoric or similar means
There are many obvious examples of ways in which indirect informal assessment of coherence and validity of explanations of reasons and consequences can mislead even experts. They include the Sokal hoax that misled experienced academics, and the use of social engineering in, for example, computer malware, politics, and advertising.
The alternative is to use a direct formal assessment of coherence and validity of explanations of reasons and consequences in communications.
A direct formal approach to testing the coherence and validity of a communication, with its non-trivial implicit and explicit explanation of reasons and consequences, is via checking the pathways of logical reasoning leading up to, extended from, and implicit in the communication.
To do this, the primary focus is on the formal assessment of the coherence and validity of the relationships captured by the knowledge expression (reasons and consequences) within and without the communication.
This formal assessment is in terms of the validity of the epistemic relationships. That is, it becomes the study of the coherence and validity of the communication in epistemic terms.
The formal study of entities’ epistemic relationships (reasons and consequences) is epistemology.
Hence, it seems to make sense to call the activity of using epistemology in the testing of the validity of communications (literature, discourse. etc.) via study of their epistemic relations, testing their epistemological validity.
This formal assessment of coherence and validity differs on epistemological and ontological grounds from other kinds of informal tests of coherence and validity based for example, on rhetoric as outlined in the informal tests described earlier.
Ken's question is good because it draws attention to the need for better formal testing of the epistemological validity of reasoning and the central importance of coherence and validity of explanations of reasons and consequences in the literatures of design theories and design research.
Historically, the importance of epistemological validity in discussions in the design research literature has been to some extent overlooked. Instead has been in many cases a substituted the informal methods of rhetoric. The consequence has been useful critique of design research and design literatures and the development of formal design theories has been limited because of this preference for informal use of testing by rhetoric. This preference, though unhelpful, is unsurprising given the socio-cultural immersion of many designers and design researchers in the skills of rhetoric and dependence on manipulation of meaning by practitioners in many design fields as the basis for their design practices.
In summary, creating sound design theory, a robust body of design research literature, and undertaking design research require formal assessment of coherence and validity of explanations of reasons and consequences in all communications about design. This requires testing the epistemological validity of all elements of design research publications, as outlined above.
(c) T. Love Nov 2013, revised Nov 2014.