Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Facts and assumptions

Thanks to both Liz C and to Gibran for their contribution to last month's discussion group.

As is often the case, there was an unplanned synergy between the two sessions.  Gibran talked about his research into online communities.  He began by highlighting a number of oversimplifications that had pervaded the research literature on the subject.  These led to several significant factors being overlooked, with the result that assumptions made on the basis of the research were of dubious validity.

Liz summarized a talk she had attended on the invention of the fact.  The resulting discussion was both fascinating and challenging.  One of the challenges was to define a fact.  (I am now undergoing gender confirmation therapy since my attempt at stating a fact: "I am a man" was firmly challenged). 

Often, unquestioned assumptions can acquire the status of facts - until, of course, someone questions them.  In the course of my research interviews, subjects often refer to facts and I ask them what they mean.  One response is to suggest that, if something is corroborated by a number of sources, it can be treated as a fact.  Recently, when I asked a 6th form student to give an example of corroboration, she told me that she had found what she was looking for on WikiAnswers, Yahoo Answers and

Clearly, there is the risk that errors in one of these sites will be replicated in the others.  Experienced Web users will be aware of such risks and will be more thorough when seeking corroboration than was my student interviewee.  Such informed mistrust is, it now seems, routinely taught to school children.  Those I have spoken to however, profess to have total trust in books (though they rarely use them).

Even in books and journals however, errors can be replicated.  Generations of chemists, for example, were taught the wrong formula for mauveine, the synthetic purple dye produced by William Perkin in 1856.  A structure was published in a handbook of dyestuffs in 1924, and made its way into standard texts, from which  (according to an article in New Scientist in 1993), it carried on being disseminated throughout the literature for another 70 years.

Johnson, J. (1993) Science: The truth about the colour purple. New Scientist. 24 July, 1993

No comments:

Post a Comment