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First, we need to reinforce, raise awareness of and spread the well-established principles that govern what constitutes a valid intellectual contribution. Practices such as peer review, competitive process for funding research, requirements to publish data, and transparency about conflicts of interest are fundamental to academic life. Most people are unaware of these practices, which are the bedrocks of academic quality and progress […]
– Nemat Shafik, Times Higher Education (2017)
What’s in a fact?
Across the world, the terms ‘post-truth’ and ‘post-fact’ proliferate daily in connection to politics, science, and of course, COVID-19. If we are to believe the headlines, we live in a world where facts and expertise no longer shape realities, public discourse, or political decisions.
However, even as contradictory ‘facts’ circulate, all sides of recent debates assure us that they appeal to truth and fact. Each side accuses the other of being misinformed and spreading misinformation. These words are not misunderstood; indeed, a vague agreement of their meaning exists amongst all users.
Instead of implying that we’ve surpassed truth and fact, time and publication space may be better spent reminding us what it takes to build a fact. The methodologies may differ in each discipline, but a common principle runs through each process: the need for robust evidence.
For some, facts are observed and intuited, for others, they are supported by studies, experts, and institutions, and for many still, facts are the product of scientific consensus. However, as Nemat Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics, stated in 2017: it takes much more than one element to build a fact.
Good researchers are not only curious and knowledgeable, but they also take time to learn, innovate, and apply the methods that help frame each discipline, and they adhere to strict ethical standards.
Today, researchers are also tasked with communicating their work to ensure people’s trust in science. This is an important endeavour and it is a responsibility that extends beyond academia. It lies with politicians, news media, and primary education (to name a few).
As John Oliver points out, however, not all scientific studies out there are created equal. Some (often retracted for shoddy methodologies) seek to legitimise deplorable and potentially dangerous beliefs about race, vaccinations, gender, etc. Others are financed by industries for lobbying purposes. Still others are the product of unethical behaviour.
Algorithms may help weed out inaccuracies on social media, but this is a passive way of countering misinformation. The practice of communicating the basic tenets of good research empowers people and helps develop curiosity, as well as the skills to assess the strength of a fact.
Therefore, it is important to communicate not only what researchers do, but how they do it. How they build the robustness of a fact. Good science takes time, it’s founded on previous knowledge and uses different types of data, in many fields it must be reproducible, it should be peer-reviewed, it builds consensus, it accepts its limitations, and it is transparent about its methods and procedures.
We cannot be experts in everything, but understanding what makes “a valid intellectual contribution,” can help us discern between facts and information that disguises itself as fact.
The responsibility of projects like TeNDER
In TeNDER, user consent entails informed consent. Pilot participants will know exactly what types of tools will be used to assess their physical and mental health, how the data they generate will be processed, and how it will be protected.
Our user partners have passed rigorous ethical committee assessments and will be there to explain each tool and support all participants with the help of the technical partners.
The project consortium has also developed a model for co-creation with target users to ensure trust and that the tools are fit-for-purpose.
Like all Horizon 2020 projects, TeNDER is committed to the principles of open access. The consortium will widely disseminate results and submit periodical progress reports.
We will communicate throughout the project duration and hopefully beyond. As the preliminary pilots are set to launch soon with a cohort of people affected by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and Cardiovascular disease, we look forward to sharing this project journey with you.