Considering the current discussions about the difference between fact and fake, The Matter of Facts is a highly relevant attempt to capture “everything you always wanted to know about science but were afraid to ask.” Its twenty-five chapters discuss scientific evidence from various perspectives, ranging from philosophy of science to the dynamics of flaws and fraud. It does not attempt to provide an overall account, because such an account could not explain sufficiently the current practice of science with all its messiness and uncertainties. “The big picture can hide ugly detail” (95).
The book is written by father and son, the father a scientist, that is to say, a professor of experimental physiology, and the son a sociologist. The consequence of this cooperation is that the discussions are mainly centered around the sociology and history of neuroendocrinology, a laboratory science almost completely the opposite of history of economics. Nevertheless I can recommend this book not only to anyone who wishes to understand the complexities of current science but also to anyone who is considering an academic career, in other words to everyone who wishes to be aware of “how scientific facts are constructed, how they are used to build theories, and how those stories spread” (xv). What I very much appreciate about this work is its nonnormative but nevertheless demythologizing insights it provides about the actual practice of science: “Science at ‘the cutting edge,’ where most scientists would claim to be, is a murky place, beset with doubts, disappointments, anomalies and contradictions” (10).
The Matter of Facts is a book about scientific evidence. Starting with the accounts of Popper, Kuhn, and Latour, evidence is considered to be “essentially a rhetorical device” (30). New evidence is presented in scientific papers, but because of this format they conceal the messy reality of scientific life; the required structure of current scientific papers “defines the narrative but distorts the reality” (34). But it is not only the structure of a paper that shapes evidence; its vocabulary, the terms in which evidence is expressed, also gives it its exactness. The problem, however, is that scientific terms cannot always be made precise without unintended consequences for the whole theory. It is actually their ambiguity that can be useful in developing new ideas (75–76). Vagueness reflects the ever-existing uncertainty and incompleteness of our understanding; precision hides the uncertainty and incompleteness away.
Scientists, as Latour saw, are in the business of persuading people: persuading journal editors and referees to publish their papers, persuading the organizers of conferences to lend them a pulpit, persuading grant committees to fund them. “We have to understand this. But we also must understand that narratives that are simple, clear, and memorable may speak more of our own cognitive constraints than of any underlying reality” (120).
Facts are the results of some kind of inference (or “learning” in modern terms) from data. The problem is, Which of the many possible inferences lead to a meaningful result? How can we distinguish fact from artifact? We are inclined to see meaningful patterns where they do not exist. To highlight this inclination, the authors introduce the term pareidolia: “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern” (107). It is easy to detect patterns, but it is extremely difficult to show that they are factual, to make a distinction between sense and nonsense.
Facts are supposed to be stable across the different locations where the data, from which the facts were inferred, were gathered. But facts are not that fixed and immutable, because the meaning of terms changes in context and across time. (See Howlett and Morgan 2010 for a much more detailed account about how facts travel in various disciplines.)
Scientists seldom talk of “facts,” but of “findings,” “observations,” and “conclusions.” Even when they speak of facts, “often an expression of impatience” (160), the facts are nevertheless provisional, subject to refinement and qualification, even rejection.
Because facts travel by publications, the authors discuss in quite some detail publication and citation biases. Their main conclusion is that the quality of a paper cannot be judged by how often it has been cited, or by the journal in which it is published, or by the number and authority of the authors:
There is no short cut. The strength of the evidence within any paper has to be judged by the reader, and it is a judgement that does not serve forever but is contingent on whatever new evidence may emerge. How well the strength of evidence is weighted will depend in part on how well the reader perceives the authors' biases—and no less, in how well the reader knows their own biases and compensates for them. That is the challenge of scholarship. (215)
The reason for presenting this longer quotation is that this call for scholarship, against “the tyranny of metrics” (276), is the core message of the book, where scholarship is not only about knowing facts and the rules of the game but also about “skills of thought and about placing knowledge in a broad context against a background of social, cultural, and philosophical awareness” (236–37).
In their concluding chapter, which is on scholarship, when they discuss how science could and should be better, they give a model for the scholarly assessment of findings, observations, and conclusions, that for science appears one of the past, but for history of economics is still the present: the model is of “when journals that were run by societies dominated, when their specialist journals held sway, with editors who knew the community, its flaws, and its potential intimately, and who understood the constructive importance of societies and their journals” (308).
This is an excellent book about the complexity of modern science—“a morass of different methodologies and theories” (124)—and perhaps therefore a renewed appreciation of the need for scholarship. It is clarifies how the shift from a qualitative to a quantitative assessment of evidence has contributed to the current crises in scientific authority, which has left science poorly armed to fight what is fake.