Monday, August 29, 2011

How well do facts travel?

I quote from a review of How Well do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge in Science magazine.
The standing of facts has not been very secure under the reign of historical, philosophical, and social perspectives on science that have grown up over the past half century. The scholars' skepticism has not, in most cases, been nihilistic or irrationalist. Instead, it reflects doubts that factual nuggets can carry their own meaning, independent of the theoretical frameworks and the places or material conditions under which they are observed, recorded, deployed, and interpreted. Etymologically, and often in practice, facts are made things. This is especially the case for science, so much of which is fashioned now in laboratories....

Operationally, the capacity to travel in word or deed is virtually a precondition for achieving the status of fact. The rigors and the productiveness of such travel define the problematic of this interesting collection. In terms of subject matter, the authors take a most capacious view of the fact, which is here instantiated sometimes as a nugget of purported truth, sometimes as a material object such as an architectural element, sometimes as instructions for implementing a technological system such as Green-Revolution agriculture, and sometimes as a prediction or theoretical claim such as (the denial of) anthropogenic climate change. Travel, too, is all over the map here: not just movement across land and sea, but from one discipline to another and between specialists and general audiences or makers and users.
If I understand this correctly, it is a very interesting idea. A fact, such as the utility of a new medical technique or a new agricultural practice, has to be disseminated to new settings to be a fact, and often (always?) that dissemination involves adaptation of the fact from the circumstances in which it has been proven true to a new set of circumstances. This suggests that the "facts" of useful models for development projects have to be adapted from where those models have worked if they are also to work in new and different locations.

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