Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Getting Your Facts Straight

What was it Harlot had said once on a Low Thursday? "The aim of these gatherings is to acquaint you with the factology of facts. One has to know whether one is dealing with the essential or the circumferential fact. Historical data, after all, tend to be not particularly factual and subject to revision by later researchers. You must look to start, therefore, with the fact that cannot be smashed into subparticles of fact." -- Norman Mailer, Harlot's Ghost (p 1281)

Research is the arrangement of facts, the business of laying them out, of putting them in the right order. Facts are to space what acts are to time. Of time, Henri Bergson said that it's what keeps everything from happening all at once. Space, perhaps, is what keeps everything from piling up in one place. You make use of this fact (for it is itself a fact) to sort through your facts, to arrange them neatly on your desk. That's what writing is for. It helps you get your facts straight.

For those who think that facts are a thing of the positivistic past, keep in mind that even such non-positivists as Kuhn and Foucault were interested in "the familiar data" and "the comparative facts", respectively, that pertained to their areas of research (into the nature of research itself). A researcher today does not exclusively take an interest in the facts but the research "deals with", "bears upon", or "is concerned with" them. The precise nature of the facts, and the kind of facts in question, vary from discipline to discipline, and from subfield to subfield. But show me your facts, let's say, and I'll tell you (more or less) what kind of researcher you are.

I want to say something, I hope, useful about how facts are deployed in academic writing. And I will do so at two levels. First, I want to say something about what a fact is quite generally, even metaphysically (I will be brief). Wittgenstein was, in specific sense, quite right to suggest that facts are all there is to the world. I want to try to say something straightforward about what that could mean. Next, and more importantly, I want to say something about what a fact is qua "something to write about", i.e., as something that "turns up in discourse". Making a very rough set of distinctions into what is always a graduated plane, I want to say that some facts are accomplished, others are contested and some we are simply "at peace" with. All three kinds of fact go into writing a scientific text.

First, then, some metaphysical speculations. "The world is the totality of facts," said Wittgenstein, "not of things." Things "themselves" are really just lying about, or drifting around aimlessly. A fact, by contrast, is the sort of determined arrangement of things that must obtain (or be the case) in order for a sentence (or proposition) to be "true". Without facts, no truth. Keep that in mind. When you talk about facts you want to say what you think is the case in the world, and then you want to check whether or not things "really" are arranged that way. Notice that I'm not yet talking about methods of data generation, reading strategies, or theory construction. That's really none of my business. What I'm insisting on is that everything from "The world today is undergoing dramatic changes in social organization," to "Zygmunt Bauman has suggested that ours is a time of ambivalence," are facts. And that such facts are the material out of which research is made.

Facts are more or less prevalent (there are big facts and small facts), more or less stable (there permanent facts and ephemeral facts) and more or less certain (there are known facts and unknown facts). In all cases, the relevant variable is how a fact is connected to other facts. A fact is ultimately connected to every other fact, either by a long tenuous and circuitous set of relations or directly to a broad range of facts. This is the "facticity" of facts, i.e., the sense in which a fact is a fact in its likeness to all the other facts. The specific facts about my fridge are very tenuously and very circuitously related to facts about your fridge; but the facts of gravity are directly related to both our fridges. The bigger facts are, the harder they fall. That is, the more facts that a fact is connected to directly, the more prevalent it is, and the more stable, and the more certain. There is very little you can do about very well connected facts. This is important to keep in mind, for ultimately there is only one fact. The Great Fact, as Donald Davidson once said somewhat ironically, about which you can't do anything. That is, what is true about my fridge (statements of fact) is really a truth about the relative position of the things in my fridge to every other thing in the universe. So much for metaphysics.

Research is about keeping the facts in proper proportion, about keeping things in perspective. And writing is one of the main tools of the trade, since once the facts are written down, you are in a position to survey them, to arrange them in different patterns, to see how they are connected. I propose thinking of your facts in three classes for the purpose of writing about them. We are now not thinking so much about their metaphysical connection, but a specific aspect of their facticity, namely, the connection of the facts your research is about to the facts that constitute your research environment. How will your reader "take" your statements of fact? This set of relations will have profound implications for your style. Consider the following kinds of fact and their associated statements.

Accomplished facts are those that you have spent a good deal of time looking at in various kinds of lighting in order to be sure that they are very much as you think they are. These are the facts that you are very proud of, and which you would be disconcerted to discover were otherwise (especially if many of them were otherwise). They are also facts that you know more about than almost anyone else. That is, if someone were to question you on them, they would find that you had very much to say in support of them. You would not so much be discussing their status as telling them (always patiently, generously) what you know about these facts. A fact is "accomplished" in your research when you really can't think of a higher authority on it than you yourself. These are the facts that you are in a better position to say something about than anyone else that you know of. They are not "beyond doubt", but you have a clear sense of what sort of investigation would be needed, and what it would have to show, in order to change your mind on them. They are the centre of your style.

Contentious facts are those that you expect to have to defend and discuss on par with your peers on a regular basis. These are facts that you believe in but that you know others don't, and which you don't feel yourself especially superior about. They are facts you are interested in discussing, albeit in a particular manner and for a limited time, on an equal footing with those who hold a different opinion on the matter.

Peaceful facts are facts that you know full well you only believe because they sounded right to you when you heard them the first time. These are the stuff of hearsay and idle chatter, which makes its way into your language without being investigated in any serious way. They simply fit into the space arranged (left empty) by the facts you have firmly accomplished and regularly contested in your research practice. These are facts that make your research pleasant to be around, they offer a kind of cartilage between the bones of sterner facts. They are almost not facts at all, but have been ground into a fine powder, crushed again and again to leave only something like the "sub-particles" of Mailer's factology. You are not interested in discussing these facts, but you often need to pass them off in statements in your writing in order to pass expediently from your last accomplishment to the next waiting contest. They are shortcuts. Given more time, you could dispense with them and take a longer, safer route. Nothing really depends on them, except that they improve your readibility. People can take them or leave them. If you know of someone who would object, but "don't want to get into it", you write, f.eks., "Pace Williamson, institutions are not things out there in the world to be manipulated like so many nuts and bolts," that is, "Peace be with Williamson, I'm just trying to move on to the next more firmly rooted fact."

One last thing about facts. There is no limit to how long a statement of any given fact may be because, as I have said, each fact is in principle constituted by its relation to every other fact. You begin in the middle of the fact you are talking about, or in the middle of the fact you are talking from. When working with your facts, therefore, try putting it in a variety of otherwise arbitrary amounts of words. First ask yourself, "In a word or two, what would I call this fact?" Then, "What would a paragraph stating this fact look like?" Then, a subsection of a chapter devoted to it, then a chapter, a book, an oevre. . .

Facts can be named, they can be described briefly, they can be described at length, they can brought to life and they can be talked to death. Some facts more than others.

[See also: "A Handbook Supplement" and "Getting Your Act Together"]


Andrew Shields said...

"... some facts are accomplished, others are contested and some we are simply "at peace" with. All three kinds of fact go into writing a scientific text."

How does this triad relate to your recent triad of types of knowledge statements: what everyone knows; what specialist know; what only you know?
"There is very little you can do about very well connected facts."

This reminds me of a point often made by the writers at Science-Based Medicine: for homeopathy to work, vast swathes of physics and biology would have to be jettisoned. Homeopathy is doubtful precisely because the facts it would negate if it were true are extremely well connected.

Thomas said...

I'm enjoying this deep-reading project of yours. It will no doubt contribute to my twitter feed.

I don't think there's a one-to-one mapping of the two triads. I actually think all three regions of your knowledge will correspond to all three kinds of facts. But I'll think about that a bit.