As this is the “season” for final year undergrads and MSc coursework students to start fulfilling the requirement of submitting a thesis (in exchange for a piece of paper with floral embellishments on its edges), perhaps I can share some of my views about some less calculative reasons for doing research.
One of the main reasons is that what we believe to constitute knowledge in books often turn out to be mere speculations. The power of the printed word is such that lies, when widely circulated and constantly drummed about, can actually be taken to be the truth by large segments of the society. By research, we reexamine the evidence of a piece of claim by personally going through the logic of its construction. In the process, some flaws may be discovered. By reporting this, the limitations of some claims become more evident. If we fail to find any holes, then perhaps the claim is true after all. And if it is true – can we use it as a premise for generating new knowledge? Developing a research habit can also confer an immunity to statements in the press, blogs, etc. that are completely vacuous, which are a handful for a penny nowadays.
Contrary to what many people believe, researchers don’t shut themselves up in a lab or office and abandon communications with the masses (a few do, but most don’t). Much time is spent talking, arguing, criticising with other people who happen to share the same interest in the same topic at the same time. Some of these communications develop into beautiful relationships or wonderful memories in one’s life. To this day I have fond memories of having met and talked to some of the best minds in statistics (C.R.Rao and V.Seshadri a.k.a. Uncle Sesh), and also of teachers whose professional and kind conducts have made me what I am today. Friends (they know who they are) along the way also provided much useful discussions that broadened my understanding of technical subjects. Travelling to conferences to present research findings further provided ample opportunities to observe how people in different parts of the world live, and exchange views with them about life in general.
So what would I do if I didn’t end up in this profession? Two things come into mind: opening a guesthouse, or becoming a second-hand bookseller. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to do some research about the feasibility of these plans…