In my ongoing attempts to read across the disciplines – reading sideways, in some sense – there are some consistencies in approaches across many fields that I had never observed before. Indeed, in my experience, some scholars in these fields are not particularly aware of these similarities. I’ve written whether facts are discovered or constructed. This post is about what we might mean by “facts” and “evidence” and how insights are dependent upon perspectives taken on a given issue. I think there are two ubiquitous practices of many disciplines that are deserving of note: 1) a use of concentrated observation, 2) the valuing of change of perspective for insight.
I was a member of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which perforce needed to attend to differences between data and evidence. My own judgments after experiencing scores of discussions on these matters is that the difference between the two is important. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited with noting that, “You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts.” In some sense, however, formal evaluation studies entail the assembly of facts in a way that they inform a judgment about whether a program is functioning as intended. Facts (or data) are the precursors of evidence. Evidence is the coherent assembly of facts to permit a valid conclusion. In some sense, “evidence” requires an assembly of some facts, a discarding of some facts, and a synthesis of the chosen facts into a coherent insight. So, we could add to the Moynihan note: “Effective evidence demands wise selection of the available facts.”
This is relevant to disciplinary commonalities and differences. The first common practice appears to be an intense observational focus, the process of collecting and assembling facts. In the sciences that rely on deductions from well-found prior findings, the observation may examine an implication that had never been examined. Alternatively, it may be the focus on an untested assumption underpinning a given finding. In disciplines whose medium is text or images, the focus may be on a feature of the entity that was ignored in prior interpretations of the text or image. In disciplines examining human behavior, the focus may prompt measurement of thoughts or behaviors that offer new conceptual frameworks for explaining the behavior. Scholars succeed when such deep, focused attention is paid to the selective assembly of facts. When the assembly leads to a preferred level of coherence relative to the past work (e.g., a new theory, a new interpretation, a new discovery), an advance in the field is achieved.
The second common practice valued by scholars in many fields seems to be the ability to change perspective on a given issue. Mathematicians often note that breakthroughs came to them by entering the unsolved problem in a completely different way. Social scientists note that changing perspectives from a disinterested observer of the group to a member of the group can yield unrivaled insights. Those creating visual images are the masters of the importance of changing physical perspectives for the impact of a piece of work. Those intensely studying text often move closer and further away from ingredients of the text to unlock new interpretations. All of these seem to be examples of the scholar believing that new insights can come from changing the perspective taken on the issue at hand.
In my own education as a researcher, I can’t remember many formal discussions of these two practices. I do remember, however, adopting both, probably by mimicking the behavior of my mentors. It would be interesting to know whether collectively we are now better at educating young scholars in the value of these skills.