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[2b2k] Data, facts, and

I’m finding it very difficult to work in Barcelona because: a) I’m technically on vacation. b) I’m too cheap to pay the exorbitant wifi prices in our hotel. c) I’m in Barcelona. But I have been writing bits and blats in the final section of Chapter 3. (For wifi I’m sipping from the Boingo tap by the minute.)

The bulk of the chapter is a lightweight history of facts. This final section is supposed to compare the traditional (= 19th century) view of facts with data as in the sense. The whole facts-to-data question is quite interesting (although what I’ve written is not). For one thing, facts are supposed to be real, but data are much more obviously an artifact of our inquiry. And, in contrast with the history of facts the chapter adumbrates (“Books by DW: Putting the Dumb into Adumbration since 1999”), sites like treat data as an endless natural resource, not as nails for nailing down particular arguments. (I know that’s vague, possibly because it’s wrong. But there’s something there. Modern facts were created as a way of sealing an argument. Data are much more in play, although data of course is also used to draw or support conclusions.)

And then I’ll be left with the question the reader will want answered but I do not particularly want to address: Am I saying that facts aren’t real, that the earth both does and does not circle the Sun? No, of course I’m not saying that. That would be crazy. The world is one way and not any other (multiverse physics aside). Facts continue to count both for understanding the world and for arguing about what to do in it. But their realm is less extensive than we’d thought when we first invented the concept, and they are more arguable than we’d wanted to believe.

I think.

4 Responses to “[2b2k] Data, facts, and”

  1. David… you are an experienced traveler… but still – just wanted to share. Last year, my brother (a relatively experienced traveler too) and his wife had stuff (bags, money) stolen TWICE during a week in Barcelona. It seems that the city had become something of an EU capital of pickpocketing and other (VERY!) creative ways of separating tourists from their hard earned vacation money.

  2. I believe the correct answer to whether “the earth both does and does not circle the Sun” is that it doesn’t objectively matter whether or not the earth circles the sun or vice versa: what matters is that the earth circling the Sun is the system most accurate at assimilating all of the currently available data and therefore is the one we primarily use. If enough data were to become available such that another theory became more relevant or accurate (one might say “more synthetic”), that more synthetic theory would gain scientific priority.

    Therefore, data should be treated as a natural resource prior to and more basic than “facts” per Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions.

  3. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto characterizes facts as statements that can be put in a form that allows them to be confirmed or not, the fifth and last sense of the term in my Merriam-Webster’s. If I understood a speech he gave in Seattle recently, he thinks this is an important insight of 19th-century thinkers (he put special emphasis on Charles Sanders Pierce), one that has had a significant effect on modern economies.

    (In a nutshell, he said that an economy in which facts are easily ascertained as true or false is one that functions more efficiently, while an economy of “shadows,” in which statements are difficult to verify, suffers from the drag that verification entails. The latter prevails in many third-world countries — but the current recession can be seen to be a result of the shadowy burden of such difficult-to-measure, first-world elements as derivatives and credit-default swaps.)

  4. Johne – interesting. Thanks.

    In the first half of the 19th century, facts were distinguished not by being confirmable, but as being independent of interests. We still think of them that way, of course. But before then, facts were contrasted mainly with theories, not with interests.

    The great work on this: Mary Poovey’s “A History of the Modern Fact.”

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