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Communities Determine What is Fact

It’s difficult to read any media these days without encountering a discussion of whether some pieces of news are fact-based or whether they are distorted reports of reality.

It prompts an academic to think about how our individual fields determine what is meritorious and what is not. Much of this is based on peer reviews. The “peer” in this phrase is generally meant to be one schooled and practicing in the same field of inquiry as that of the given scholar.

In fields with external funding, the peer review takes place in multiple stages. When a proposal for external funding is submitted to the funding agency, it is often reviewed by a group of researchers in the same field. They rate the proposals relative to other proposals for work in the field. These are judgments of knowledgeable others about the likely benefits of knowledge expansion from a proposed project.

The link to “determining the facts” and peer review is that the reviewers are judging whether the proposed research will indeed add knowledge to the existing domain. Will the results of the work produce valid knowledge expansion?

Later, when funded research has been completed, another stage of peer review begins with the dissemination of findings. These are often fully anonymous reviews. A group of peer scholars are asked to read the written product of the research and judge whether it is persuasive as evidence of a novel finding, an innovation, or an extension of current knowledge. If the work doesn’t yield support of peer reviewers, it is not published (at least in that journal).

Similar, but perhaps more diverse, procedures of peer review for book-length manuscripts by university presses. It is common that this occurs after a few early chapters are drafted and the full book is outlined. The role of the internal editor for the university press is often an important influence on the acceptance.

The link to “determining the facts” is that the community of peers determine whether the work is meritorious of being added to the cumulative product of a field.

In speaking with my journalist friends, they note that mainline newspapers often have codes of practice and internal review procedures to vet drafts of stories. They form the internal community of vetters who determine their acceptance of facts. They are quick to note that the proliferating new media have not fully adopted such procedures. Indeed, the rate at which new articles, blogs, tweets, and texts are produced makes such reviews unlikely.

In the absence of this, social networks that exchange news pieces among themselves might vet the veracity of reports. Unfortunately, such networks in general do not possess the knowledge requisite to reviewing the veracity of such pieces. They are in general based on friend groups; they tend to be rather homogeneous, thus, offering little variation in viewpoints.

I am fully aware of the weaknesses of peer reviews that are part of academic life, but, with all their faults, I must admit I appreciate them more these days.

5 thoughts on “Communities Determine What is Fact

  1. I think the main cause of this phenomenon is that we have turned into news consumers. Nowadays, we fetishize the news. We don’t need news to stimulate our senses and talk sense but to feed our mind with typical nonsense. The thing cannot change without the public taking the stand and leaving consumeristic behaviour behind. If people can get their attitude right, they can change how we read or see the news.

  2. Great article about the real fact knowledge. peer reviews are good but one should review or judge any article or anything only itself….

  3. Very stimulating post, thank you.
    I think Neal has it right. I would argue that peer review doesn’t determine facts. Facts are facts. They’re just facts regardless of whether a peer reviewer or anyone else “likes” them. 2 + 2 = 4 regardless what a peer reviewer might have to say about it. Ditto for climate change, smoking causes cancer, and evolution really happens, but let’s not go there just yet. *Good* peer review facilitates or speeds up distribution of facts by working to correct errors and the clarity of the presentation. *Good* peer review leaves subjective judgement at the door. In our modern society, the non expert network comprised of media etc. that discusses, debates, and argues over facts that ultimately come from peer reviewed research is a rat’s nest of special interest, political bias, some bonafide idealism and enthusiasm, some genuine ignorance, all tempered on it’s best days by one or more members of an army of well intentioned but often befuddled experts asked to chime in from time to time. It’s chaos. What society does (assuming it is composed of honest people empowered with an education that has provided them with good critical thinking skills) is sift through the chaos, interpret, and then use facts for good instead of evil. Sometimes it looks like we’re not doing too well, but ultimately we muddle through because we take education seriously.


  4. Hopefully, the reviews are of the validity and reliability of the research methodology employed or to be employed and not of the acceptability of the results or the anticipated results (it shouldn’t be a popularity contest, except concerning the accepted value of researching a particular problem/issue/phenomena). Let the chips fall where they may, as long as the method of chopping is acceptable!

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