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Introduction: how well do 'facts travel'

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Facts are foundational objects of academia and science, more broadly we live in an information age where facts are everywhere. Given this, it might be assumed that facts travel easily over time and from one domain to another (from physics to biology, from economics to history, from academia to policymakers or to the public), that their travel is without complication. However, some simple reflection reveals that this is not the case – an obvious recent example would be the debate in the USA over climate change, where scientific facts about climate change found great difficulty in travelling successfully into the political domain. Thus, whilst it is often assumed that a fact is a fact is a fact, those who work across disciplinary boundaries are well aware that the life of a fact is not so simple. Our research project, ‘How Well Do Facts Travel’1, was designed as a ‘blue skies’ programme to think in broad terms about this issue. Its aim was to analyse how well facts travelled between and within disciplines and to examine why a fact considered acceptable in one context retains or loses its status as evidence in another. Our approach was via a body of case work. As well as the climate change one above, other examples investigated by the project include: technology transfer in rural India, cases as ‘fact carriers’ in contemporary medicine, the travel of facts about Ancient Greek architecture to nineteenth century architecture in the USA, the travel of small facts in bioinformatics, the travel over time of the ‘Alpha Male’ fact in romance novels, and how facts about rat pathology related to crowding travelled into many other domains.

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