Monday, July 30, 2007

What do they know and how do they know it?

OK, this probably isn't going anywhere (and it's generally not nearly as serious as this issue), but it's been driving me crazy in some recent reading and I have to get it off my chest.

How can we get more basic clarity on the epistemological status of claims we read in scholarly journals? On what basis and how securely to do we know something we assert in a publication? Is it received wisdom, vague suspicion, well-documented pattern that fits a broad set of facts, etc.? Much of the peer-review process seems aimed to ferreting out fudging on this front, but I see constantly when and where it hasn't worked, especially in theoretical linguistics.

This was brought to the fore by a TPM post by Josh Marshall this morning, with this passage (the quote at the beginning is from an NYT editorial):
"Unwilling to accept [DOJ's refusal to reauthorize the program], Vice President Dick Cheney sent Mr. Gonzales and another official to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital room to get him to approve the wiretapping."

The folks at TPMmuckraker are the ones really following this story closely. So perhaps this is a detail that has eluded me. But I was not aware that it had ever been established that Vice President Cheney ordered the visit. Speculated, rumored, sure. But I wasn't aware this had been established at all.

And yet the Times states it rather offhandedly as a fact. So what do they know?

Editorials like these are sometimes a venue where facts are stuck in which are 'known' to be true but which cannot be sourced cleanly or clearly enough to make it onto the news pages. Is that what's up here?
Good questions, right?


Anonymous said...

I love how we're increasingly playing with the language of Watergate again. Well, no, it's depressing.

Ollock said...

I don't know much about the political side of it, but for papers I suggest something similar to what was done in the research on possible connections between tonal languages and specific genes. Namely, a separate press release apart from the peer-reviewed paper that states the premise and conclusions of the paper simply and accessibly as well as a list of caveats so the public knows which armchair-conclusions to avoid.

Myself having no training in statistic and only just starting my undergraduate studies, what they posted up on the web helped me understand a lot about what that research was about and where it's going.