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Discovering and/or Constructing Fact

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.

5 thoughts on “Discovering and/or Constructing Fact

  1. An earlier expression of the construction of facts is Ludwik Fleck’s GENESIS AND DEVELOPMENT OF A SCIENTIFIC FACT (1935; trans fron German 1979), which Thomas Kuhn “forgot” he had read but which clearly influenced THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFUC REVOLUTIONS (1962). Bruno Latour, instrumental in fleshing out thd social constructionist view of science with LABORATORY LUFE and subsequent publications, has recently back-tracked on the claims therein.

  2. Very interesting, thank you. There is a book written in 1979 by Latour and Woolgar titled “Laboratory life. The social construction of scientific facts” that in many sections emphasizes the “social” aspects in “constructing” facts; perhaps there is a newer book with a similar title that is being cited, in which case my apologies for off – base comments. However, if this is the book alluded to, in Latour & Woolgar’s analysis of one neuroendocrinology laboratory, one point many practicing scientists would offer is that the authors’ conclusions are largely built on the analysis of one laboratory. But the first rule of any experimental science, the first rule for discovering facts, is to make sure the set of data being analyzed is truly representative of the phenomenon you wish to study. As informative as an analysis of any one laboratory might be, it does not accurately represent the phenomenon of how all scientists in a field work together to discover facts. Much of that discovery process is indeed “social” but the Latour / Woolgar book overlooks a number of other facets to scientific life that perhaps were not emphasized in the laboratory they observed; for example, that many scientists spend as much time testing other scientists’ facts as they do uncovering new ones. Another (perhaps particularly relevant for many laboratories at Georgetown) is the emphasis often placed on education (training the next generation of scientists) and public dissemination of scientific fact (not only specialized publication in journals). Most days of the week most scientists are preoccupied with all these things (and more).

  3. Interesting that the poet William Wordsworth talked about the way the imagination “half perceives, an d half creates.” Is there really any field, even in the hard sciences, in which the human reason and imagination are not involved in constructing “facts”? Advancement of analysis in all fields begins with an hypothesis.

      • Indeed, Wordsworth’s heart leapt up when he beheld a rainbow in the sky, and we are all the better for it and for what he constructed when he wrote down how he felt. Most scientists I know would think about the rainbow in a different way, perhaps dwelling on the physics of it all, at some point probably compulsively contemplating the size of water droplets within which the sunlight was reflecting to create the rainbow in the first place and then reflexively wondering how long it would take to measure them accurately and prove their average size. I know physicists that could spend all day doing calculations on such water droplets. For the sheer pleasure of it. And out of no less a sense of wonder or imagination, but just because that’s how scientists prefer to approach a better understanding of the world around them. A key point I guess is that the typical scientist has plenty of imagination but often does not perceive or create as did Wordsworth in looking at a rainbow, instead, he / she tends to measure and do the math. Both approaches are essential to our very human collective grasp of rainbows.

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