Programme Description

How well do 'facts' travel?

The proposed nature and emphases of the research programme and its component projects

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. Even everyday experience suggests that, like gossip, facts that travel rarely remain stable. Our research programme proposes to explore the nature of evidence by adopting a consistent research design to analyse how well evidence travels between and within disciplines and to examine why evidence considered acceptable in one context retains or loses its status as evidence in another. We aim to establish a body of case work on this question of how well facts travel and to develop, for more general use, the conceptual frameworks appropriate to answering this question.

A) Research Question, Research Design and Case Work

How is evidence received and understood differently at one site from another? By analysing how facts are understood in a "receiving" site and comparing this with their place in the "source" field, we anticipate that we will be able to generate some revealing insights into how well facts travel.

In our approach to the "nature of evidence", we focus on the different ways in which facts are received and treated according to different disciplinary bases and in different uses. Thus, there are four component projects to our programme spanning history, social sciences and, to a limited extent, life sciences. Each component uses the same generic research design, but focuses on a different field of transfer between places where evidence is produced and used.

We expect these component projects to generate case studies that will teach us not just about how the nature of evidence, and its evaluation, differs between disciplinary sites, but also to generate some general suggestions about the receipt of facts. Are facts in a new site positively received and integrated? Or are they reinterpreted to fit? Perhaps they are inconsistent with the new site information, and, if so, how is the dispute resolved? Or do the new facts prove destructive? These are the senses in which we will seek to assess how "well" facts travel, that is, to understand the different kinds of reception and strategies for integration of facts. To help us analyse these reception issues in our cases, and so provide more general answers to the overall question "How well do facts travel?", we adopt a number of theoretical and conceptual starting points from the existing literatures on knowledge transfer. We discuss these later below.

In summary: by using a well-focussed question, a set of conceptual frameworks, and by conducting a set of parallel research projects on varying examples covering a number of fields, we expect to generate a considerable body of case literature and to gain a broad conceptual understanding of how well facts travel.

This looks like an ambitious project, despite the tight focus of the question, but we are situated in a department - that of economic history - where we habitually use both historical and social science evidence and their methods of evaluation and, in some cases, also make use of materials from the natural and life sciences. We will use our comparative advantage, that, as economic historians, historians of policy sciences and historians of science - we have a strong multidisciplinary base, both as individuals and from our own multi-disciplinary work and field backgrounds. We envisage that the main case research of the components will be undertaken by post-doc researchers and so we expect to recruit four researchers with complementary field experiences and skills (probably to include a sociologist of science, a historian of (maybe life) science, and possibly an anthropologist). For this reason, we have only indicated the general area of cases within the components (and suggested some examples), since the exact cases chosen will depend on the researchers we recruit. Besides their own component project of research, the post-docs will also be expected to collaborate with the faculty members in developing the theoretical approaches (see below). The faculty members of the team also expect to contribute to the case literature of the project, but primarily we see our role as developing the theoretical/conceptual material required for analysing the case components. We also expect to involve a small number of visitors to the programme, experts in either the component projects or the conceptual materials.

The four component project questions

1) How well do facts travel between the producing and the using domain in the same disciplinary space?

Here the focus is on how evidence produced in the academic arena is used at the policy face. We will develop comparative cases covering two areas: the field of social policy, where the role of policy questions is important from the beginning of research, and that of economics, where policy questions often only come in at the end. For example, a possible case might focus on the way evidence is used as inputs into microsimulations and how the outputs thence travel - as "evidence" - to the policy field in the realms of economics and social policy. This topic would take in current questions about the nature of the "evidence" that comes from simulations (a method which produces hotly disputed outputs in the environmental sciences, for example) as well as contrast the different reception of facts found in academic and policy discussions using such methods.

2) How well do facts and evidence-claims travel between social sciences and history?

We take it for granted in economic history that facts and evidence do travel between the social sciences and history, but these practices need to be put under our microscope along with the others. The epistemological status of ''facts'' is central to relations between economics and history. For example, premodern historians have followed K. Polanyi, M. Finley, and E. P.Thompson in claiming that precapitalist economic facts are not amenable to neoclassical analysis because they can not be abstracted from their social and cultural contexts. On the other hand, cliometricians, claiming that historians are dazzled by factual irrelevancies, are willing to resort to ''stylised facts'' that simplify standard historical narratives but which can be brought within their analytical framework. We will analyse the different reception accorded to economic ''evidence'' regarding junctures in English history that both historians and social scientists accept as critically important (e.g. the late medieval ''crisis'', the Glorious Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution), focussing on the changing strategies that make facts travel more or less easily between the two fields.

3) How well do facts travel between life and social sciences? Here the focus will mainly be on how life science information is used in the social sciences.

In the course of our research we come across examples where evidence from physiology, medicine, agricultural science etc has been used in the social science realm. For example, research into long term changes in human well-being relies heavily on insights from modern medicine, epidemiology, and human biology into the relationships between nutritional status, environmental conditions, diseases and human body size. This reflects efforts to exploit the sources on human height and physical condition that are available either indirectly (in the form of contemporary observations) or directly in the form of human remains (skeletons). Another related example is the way that the United Nations Human Development Index splices together "facts" taken from medical science, economics and educational literature.

4) How well do facts and evidence claims travel over time?

What counted as evidence for the political economist, social policy maker or agricultural researchers in 1800 might well not stand up to scrutiny for their descendants of 2000, and this might be equally true if one had a time machine that took today's facts back into history. Facts and evidence are always assessed relative to concepts and claims of the day - it is never just a matter of analytical techniques and naked information. This component effectively explores the nature of evidence in relation to historical epistemology. For example, the conceptualization and measurement of both poverty and richness has changed quite considerably over the past centuries, both in relation to individuals and to the economy or society at large. The kinds of "standardized quantitative rules", to use Ted Porter's phrase, that form the mainstay of facts about these matters for the modern social scientist were not in use two centuries ago, and even the kinds of narrative and discursive use of evidence of that period would cut little ice against today's carefully structured case studies.

B) Conceptual Frameworks

There are, of course, many different ways of studying the nature of evidence: the innovative aspect of our research question and design is to use the reception of facts between academia and policy domains, between disciplines and over time as a good way of revealing the disciplinary natures of evidence. But our research aims are to complement and extend in an original way both the already rich historical and sociological literature on how knowledge is successfully transferred within disciplines and the normative projects in philosophy concerned with the evaluation of evidence.

Several conceptual strands provide starting points for our research programme but their limitations also suggest that we will need to be innovative in bringing social science ideas about how people and organisations behave to our questions about how facts travel and in developing or adopting new frameworks for understanding how facts or evidence become accepted or rejected in other communities.

i) Expanding the notion of "travelling".

There has been a considerable recent literature on how knowledge travels in the history of science. "Travelling" has been somewhat literally and narrowly understood to be physical distance, while "knowledge" has been widely defined to incorporate theories, technologies and so forth. This literature has focussed on communities, on networks and on communication. However, the notion of "travelling" needs to be expanded in various ways appropriate for our four component projects. In an important example, Peter Galison (Image and Logic, 1997) borrowed from anthropology to analyse the transfers of knowledge between applied and theoretical physicists in a "trading zone". However, this is a theory of exchange, and we want to know about how communities treat facts that they have freely received from other disciplines. Do they treat them as free gifts or as alien outsiders? Here we need to seek the help of theories from other social sciences, for example, anthropology, about the acceptability, compatibility or rejection of the "outsider" fact, as for example in Marshall Sahlins' Island of History (1987).

ii) Exploring the substitutes for tacit knowledge.

Another pertinent literature is that on "tacit" knowledge. Michael Polyani's classic book Personal Knowledge (1958) suggests how important this kind of knowledge is to the notion of facts and acceptability of evidence. The more recent sociology of science has reformulated the tacit knowledge problem into questions about "practise" and the master-apprentice relation (for example, see Harry Collin's exploration of crystal growing in Artificial Experts, 1990). But for our project, the problem is that facts must travel without the tacit knowledge connections. What substitutes for that tacit knowledge transfer of learning by doing? Morgan and Frank den Butter (Empirical Models and Policy-Making, 2000) point to the role of both institutional arrangements and of economic models in the transfer of economic knowledge between scientists and policy makers. By exploiting, and perhaps expanding, the range of theories about the role of individuals, of institutional features, and of (trans-) disciplinary objects (such as models) in knowledge transfer, we anticipate useful insights into what substitutes for tacit knowledge when facts travel.

iii) Analysing the role of cases.

Case based reasoning and evidence are widely used in a number of sciences (biology, geology etc), social sciences (anthropology) and humanities (law, history). Accounts as to how cases work, and what roles they play in their disciplinary homes, suggest that each discipline regards cases somewhat differently; contrast, for example, the micro-histories of Carlo Ginzburg (Clues, Myths and the Historical Method, 1990) and the ubiquitous role of cases in management sciences. In some environments, cases appear to play a critical role in the transfer of arguments or evidence across domains: for example, in biology, evidence from model organisms such as laboratory mice are transferred to apply to human science. Cases may provide an easy way for facts to travel within disciplines, for the advantage of a case study is that it is full of detail, and not yet fitted into a theory, leaving the investigator free to choose which facts are pertinent. Whether this makes cases in general a good conduit for facts to travel beyond disciplinary boundaries is an open question. Systematic investigation and comparison of the ways in which cases and case based-reasoning help facts to travel is likely to prove a rewarding conceptual theme for the overall programme.

iv) Conceptualizing how facts are used in public and official domains.

Our focus on economics and social policy brings in two important contemporary issues, namely the public understanding of scientific facts and the constitution and use of social science facts in the political realm. For example, during the foot and mouth crisis, an epidemiologist giving a radio interview about the disease was treated as talking matters of fact; an economist giving a cost-benefit analysis of culling versus vaccination was treated as giving a matter of opinion. Given that both sets of evidence were quantitatively constituted, and had been derived from standardized rules within each disciplinary field, they might both have been received in the same way, but their disciplinary bases were different and these were politically sensitive facts. In general, sociologists and historians of science have paid scant attention to the political and social acceptability of facts from the social sciences. Historians of economics (eg Donald Winch's Riches and Poverty, 1996) and of medical/social policy (eg Peter Baldwin's Contagion and the State in Europe, 1830-1930, 1999) have been far more engaged with the political dimension and we look to them for help in framing our research questions about how social science facts travel into the public and official domains.

How the strands fit together: 

We expect the empirical cases in the component projects to be self-contained, but there to be considerable synergies between the projects so that the theories and conceptual work developed under these four headings can be fully shared and exploited across the four component projects. We expect to hold several programme workshops during the course of the research period in which we push forward conceptual themes with the help of recognised outside experts. By developing the theoretical or conceptual understanding, our aim is to provide a more general account of how well different kinds of facts or evidence travel; to show what helps or hinders their transfer, acceptability and incorporation in the new site; and to see how far this has implications of general relevance for the use of facts in the two main realms - scientific and political - that we address.

The research methods and sources to be used

The generic theories lying behind the project as a whole derive from several social sciences and from various branches of history as we have discussed above. The generic methods of our programme for the case studies in the four components come from history - taken, of course, to include the application of historical methods to the present.

As economic historians, we have a comparative advantage in thinking about evidence that has travelled. We habitually use and assess evidence of many different kinds, quantitative, qualitative and anecdotal; and from many different expert fields. We are used to looking at evidence in its local disciplinary site - in economics or social policy for example - and using it to answer our own historical questions. In this project, however, we will apply our historians' skills and experience to reflect light into these sources and answer the reverse questions - that is, not how useful are these facts to us, but how useful have these facts been found by other communities of scientists and users?

As social scientists, we are used to bringing in ideas and theories from all the social sciences to motivate our questions and develop answers about cases in history. We take it for granted that whether facts travel and how well facts travel, depends on the social realm and so requires us to think analytically as social scientists.