It is often assumed that a fact is a fact is a fact, yet those who work across disciplinary boundaries are well aware that the life of a fact is not so simple. Our research program explored the nature of evidence by analysing how well facts travelled between and within disciplines and across time. Over the fours years of the project, we investigated facts travelling in a variety of contexts from archaeology to nanotechnology, tracing them from rat experiments to the design of college dormitories, and over time periods that ranged from plague myths to modern epidemiology. We found that facts can often travel with remarkable integrity compared to gossip and rumour, but with an equally surprising fecundity.
The output of the project is available in our many working papers, and published in the book of the project.
The initial proposal from 2004, outlining our expectations and plans for the project, can be found here: Original Proposal
What type of work do we do?
"How Well Do 'Facts' Travel?" is a project investigating the transmission and reception of facts. As the title indicates, the project looks not only at whether and how facts travel, but what happens to those facts when they travel. Do they lose or gain status? Is information scrambled, and does this work for or against the facts? What types of mechanism enable transit? Between them, the various researchers look at "facts" travelling across time, between disciplines, between academia and policy, between the lay public and the specialist professional, and in the physical sense across countries, embodied in people, spoken, written, performed and executed, or disembodied in books, diagrams, and technologies.
A toolkit for travelling "facts"
The following notes deal with some of the mechanisms by which facts might be thought to travel. The first section looks at the idea of tacit and explicit knowledge. How might facts travel tacitly, that is, without explicit formulation?
The second part looks at a mechanism of travel that substitutes "facts" for entities of its own making: "memes." A meme is a unit of cultural selection by analogy with the gene as the unit of evolutionary selection. Memes are an increasingly popular way to talk about cultural transmission. What advantages are there to adopting this new terminology, and to whom?
The third part looks at metaphor, one way in which the language which facilitates travelling facts also affects the facts that travel. Scholars today approach metaphor not simply as a poetic garnish, but as constitutive of the way in which people think. Some neuroscientists now suggest that the structure of metaphors (and what used to be no more than "figures of speech") goes all the way down to how the brain processes information. Different metaphors carry different types of information, enabling and emphasising certain types of transfer whilst hampering and inhibiting others.
By no means do these notes sum to an exhaustive account of the mechanisms by which facts might travel. A better sense of what types of conceptual apparatus the project is open to exploring can be found by looking at the working papers series. It is hoped that new sections will eventually be added on information theory, on narrative, on how models, graphs, and illustrations carry facts, on how well numerical facts travel, and more, contributing to a theoretical toolkit for working with travelling facts.
- Introduction (pdf)
- Tacit-Knowledge (pdf)
- Memes (pdf)
- Metaphors (pdf)
What do we read?
In our weekly reading group we search for conceptual tools from a broad range of literature including history and philosophy of science, science studies, anthropology, sociology, psychology and literature studies. A complete list of readings from the academic year 2006/07 can be read here (pdf). Readings during the academic year 2007/2008 can be found here (pdf).
One of the best ways to understand how the project hangs together is to look at our working papers. The series addresses topics as diverse as the bad name of eugenics, worms as "model organisms," the structural baggage of an aesthetic style, history's infection with folk-tales, and the differential weight given to Charles Dickens's journalism and Charles Booth's poverty map.
There is no clear unifying conclusion emerging from these papers, nor is their a single dominant methodology. But what they do have in common is a shared concern with travelling facts, and (taken together) they constitute a provisional and performative answer to the project's title question.
After all, asking "how well do 'facts' travel?" is unlikely to yield a single-sentence-answer of any value. Instead, the resident and affiliated researchers are building a complement of case studies which collect our various approaches. To help organise the work, the component projects have been gathered into the following clusters (see the annual report for more detail):
- The first cluster of work is on the transfer of technical "facts" through technological knowledge
- The second cluster investigates how facts travel around different disciplinary communities
- The third cluster of work is concerned with natural science/social science intersections
- The fourth cluster is about the quantification of facts and their especial potential of numbers to travel well
- The fifth cluster of work uses perspectives from the humanities and social sciences to investigate travelling facts in two broader spaces: (i) from sciences into the wider public realm, and (ii) over long time spans.
From the diversity of the individual projects and papers patterns become apparent:
One is that the manner of presenting facts seems to matter, with prestigious modes of delivery changing over time. This can be seen in the social sciences' current preference for quantitative data over the older preference for narrative description, or in today's investment in disembodied, codified knowledge in favour (and perhaps to the exclusion) of tacit, embodied knowledge.
A second aspect is the manner in which facts meet with little resistance when they are aligned with the expectations of their audience. As the project develops, we expect to strengthen and further define and clarify these connections.
This information is also available as a colour leaflet.