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There Are only Two Ways in Which Humankind Can Produce Knowledge: Through Passive Observation or Through Active Experiment

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“There are only two ways in which humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or through active experiment.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?

What is the proper way to define “produce knowledge?” To gather? To acquire? I interpret the word “produce,” when used in this context, as both creation and growth. In producing knowledge, we are expanding on current knowledge (growth) and finding new knowledge (creation). It is also important to understand the terms “passive observation,” which I define as studying while in no way tampering with the surrounding environment, and “active experiment,” which means consciously altering the ways in which something would normally occur to find results. Thinking of active experiment, my brain automatically produces images of a white lab coat injecting substances into rats and watching how they react. Whereas passive observation is a lot more difficult for me to picture. The question, then, is to what extent can observation ever truly be passive? While examining the natural sciences, human sciences, and history as areas of knowledge, with respect to memory and perception as ways of knowing, I will attempt to answer this question.

Passive observation is not possible because simply adding an observer changes the environment. With my interpretation of “passive observation” it is necessary for the space being observed to remain un-altered. To observe a space, one must be in that space, or have added something to the space (a camera) to study the area. In doing this, the environment becomes changed. Although this change may not substantially affect any behaviors within the observation realm, the place itself has still been altered in some way or another. When examining habitats in the natural science defined as ecology, often times researches engage in what they would deem as “passive observation.” They may venture into a rainforest, and simply observe the feeding patterns of tropical birds. However, how do we know that the observer being there does not change the pattern of where the birds would normally eat, or how many birds are coming to the normal feeding location despite the observers presence? In my biology class, we studied the ways in which ants communicate by scent (pheremones) (Arnold, 2013). The class sat in one of the fields outside of school and observed the migration of the ants from place to place. At the time, this seemed like “passive observation,” however, looking at it now, I question whether or not the ants patterns would have been disturbed by an entire class of potentially noisy students. The information that the class produced about ant communication, was most likely skewed due to the circumstances making it not a viable source to base scientific theory on, and therefore faulted as a method to produce knowledge.

Further disproving the idea of passive observation are the human sciences, and more specifically psychology. Psychologists are aware of and even study the Observer Effect. This theory states that while observing people they have a tendency to alter their behavior to enhance the way they are being viewed (van de Lagemaat, 2005). This theory explains how passive observation is not possible due to the nature of humans to adapt to fit their surroundings. In my psychology class we witnessed the Observer Effect first hand as each person was randomly assigned to “observe” another person for an entire class period, writing down everything the person did. We did not know who our observer was, only who we were supposed to observe. Knowing that they were being watched the students acted quite differently than normal. Sitting up straight and being very quiet and respectful, some students acted how they thought the observer would want. Other students however, acted completely differently, doing silly things and abnormal behaviors that would not have been expected of them previously. This theory deals heavily with the idea of sense perception as a way of knowing. What did the students perceive the observer wanted to see from them? The Observer Effect is dictated largely by sense perception, as the person who is being observed changes their actions and behaviors to fit (or differ from) a mold they sense has been set for them by the observer.

Contradicting the idea that passive observation doesn’t exist, is history (CC). As an area of knowing, history is almost untestable, and in that sense unable to be a victim of active experimentation. So the question then becomes how do we produce knowledge in the field of history? Contradicting my claim earlier about passive observation not being a viable way to produce knowledge, and if we are considering the only two ways to produce knowledge are passive observation and active experiment, history must be subject to passive observation. Historical knowledge is able to be produced through passive observation due to the fact that it is studying something that has already happened. There is no present visualization of history as there was in the earlier areas of knowledge, there is only the learning of things that have already taken place. For example, when I learned about World War I in my history of Europe class, I learned about the battle of the Somme. I had never heard of it before and therefore was creating knowledge, yet I was not doing experiments on it to come to the conclusion that it did exist. I learned about the battle of the Somme passively without changing any of the items that taking place normally by learning about it. To me, history involves memory as the main way of knowing. We recount history through memory and use our memory of events to pass certain ideas down through generations. As I look to memory as a way of knowing I find it to be one of the only ways of knowing that can truly constitute as passive observation because thinking about the memory doesn't change the memory. When memories are told aloud to create historical stories, they take personal knowledge and convert it to shared knowledge. History with regard to memory is a viable example of passive observation being a way to produce knowledge.



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