What is Evidence?

By Theresa Sawicka

Recently, Dr Cliff Smyth and Prof Susan Hillier gave us an informed discussion of the state of current research on the Feldenkrais method. As my colleague Dr Eric Kieran has written in his review of the event it was heartening to see so much quality research being conducted.  

The discussion stimulated, for me, a lot of thinking about what constitutes ‘evidence’ and why it matters. Scientific evidence for the efficacy of the Feldenkrais method is one way to establish and legitimate the credibility of the Method in the world of academic scholarship. It would invite critical scrutiny from international scholars and probably likely accelerate the growth and development of the Method. But beyond this, access to the academy and its intellectual resources provides Feldenkrais practitioners with the opportunity to develop their own research questions based on evidence from their practice.

 Theresa Sawicka, PhD. Prior to my recent retirement from formal academic life I was a university administrator: I worked in two universities in New Zealand as both a Director of a Graduate School and as an Associate Director of a Research Office. Originally trained as a Cultural Anthropologist I worked as a Research Fellow on various research projects and prior to that on my PhD. I graduated as a Feldenkrais practitioner in 2010.

As Prof Hillier noted, in her research domain of medical science, evidence for one’s claims is fundamental. Claims need verifiable empirical data to be accepted by the scientific community. One’s track record in producing quality evidence, accepted by colleagues as valid, will often be the basis on whether or not one’s next research project gets funded. Actually, the forms of accepted evidence are particular to individual scholarly domains. This is no less true for the social sciences and humanities than it is for experimental science.

It is common to oppose the ‘truthiness’ of science to the the ‘subjective interpretations’ of the arts, humanities and social sciences. These debates completely gloss over the reality that knowledge is disciplinary and resides in communities of scholars who have agreed epistemologies, paradigms, rules and standards of the academic cultures that they belong to. Some academic disciplines have a 1000-year history; that’s a lot of time to build epistemologies, theories, forms of argument, explanations and accepted evidence. It builds the kind of culture where a scholar may have more allegiance to their discipline than the institution which employs them. So the evidence produced by disciplines which are not scientifically experimental may not be measurements produced by more mathematical or statistical data but can be evidence none the less determined by a long history of debate embedded in scholarly communities. 

This is not to dismiss the real differences between the ‘Two Cultures’ as C. P. Snow once described them. A scientific approach to knowledge clearly aims to reduce ambiguity in its forms of explanation. Whereas the arts, humanities and often the social sciences, are often inclusive of more than one narrative in their forms of explanation. 

One aspect of creating sound evidence is the nature of the research question asked and the kind of method employed to answer that question. Sound evidence is generated by asking quality questions and then using appropriate methods for finding answers to those questions. In this regard scholarly cultures have far more in common, despite their different specialist languages, than is apparent initially. If there is any opposition to be made it is between scholarly research and the shallow ‘research’ that the internet lends itself to and which is often barely disguised personal opinion based on either fallacious reasoning or false evidence. 

One of the highly attractive research openings of the Feldenkrais Method is that it offers researchers a chance to bring together the personal, and subjective experience of participants  with objective measurements of the changes that they experience. To seek explanations for phenomena in different domains of knowledge as we see in interdisciplinary research.  As Prof hillier and Dr Smyth have shown, internationally Feldenkrais practitioners are contributing to research in a wide range of disciplines from the creative arts, to medically-based treatments for several kinds of ailments, to philosophical enquiry and so on. This bringing together of seemingly disparate approaches to knowledge about the method affords a new depth of understanding and avoids the kind of dualism which besets so much of our understanding. 

So, evidence-based knowledge is not just for science. All scholarship requires its own legitimated  evidence. Evidence is related to research questions and better questions deliver more profound knowledge or something worth knowing. It matters to the Feldenkrais world because we have something fundamental to say about being human and we have knowledge to share about our humanity. 

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