This is not a post about facts and alternative facts. It’s a post about how some fields determine what they currently believe to be true and what is too tenuous to believe.
I’m reading an older book, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, written by a nonscientist observer in a neuroendocrinology laboratory. The observer attempts to glean how knowledge is built and assessed in the unit.
It’s always interesting to look at a process through the eyes of someone external to it. The value of such studies is that basic assumptions of a field, especially those that form the very basis of its foundations, are sometimes difficult for participants to articulate. One removed outside the milieu tries to discern these assumptions. When the observer can then seek verification of their conclusions, real insight is possible.
The book described how the group, in some sense, was in continuous debate, attempting to separate fact from artifact. Indeed, at the start of a new program, all possible facts might seem equally plausible. The consequence of research allows the identification of what is fact and what is artifact. Progress in the laboratory consisted of discarding possible facts, as quickly as possible. This is very similar to the notion of identifying the signal in noisy information or the notion of extracting order out of disorder. The observer concluded that resolutions of those debates on a given issue was a signal of progress in the inquiry. The classification as fact or artifact became part of their agreed-upon knowledge state, and onward the scientists went to studying the next issue.
The observer saw the scientists in the laboratory to be singularly focused on their impact on the field. They were continuously reading the results of peer/competing laboratories, and they were adapting their own agenda to be complementary to those. One principal means of having impact on the field was to produce scientific articles, peer-reviewed by those in the field. The achievement of the peer-reviewed article supported their belief that the finding in the paper was novel enough to merit a separate notification to the field.
Impact, however, was not just the publication but whether the findings reported in the article affected other people’s work. Citations to the papers were used as an indicator of this. But the citations tended to have multiple forms. Sometimes citations were made within articles that contested the original finding. Sometimes citations to the work were related to new developments building on top of the original finding. The latter, of course, were viewed as evidence of more positive impact.
Over time, if the percentage of work building on the original finding dominated the new literature, the scientists took that as evidence that their finding had lasting value. When a citation was found from a textbook providing an overview of the field, then the finding had, in some sense, become a fact. That is, the field was including the finding in teaching the key knowledge of the field. Further evidence of impact arose from the findings of the laboratory being used in clinical or pharmaceutical industry developments.
The subtitle of the book, noting the construction of facts versus the discovery of facts, is an interesting choice of words. I’m not sure all the scientists in the laboratory would view their work with that perspective. All fields in some sense are involved in such construction. Some fields are deeply self-aware of their role in the construction. Other fields hold fast to the notion that they are objective viewers of a fixed external reality. Their new facts are viewed to arise from discovery, not their own construction.