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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

2015-16: Evidence

“Lies, Damned Lies and …”: Is There Such a Thing as Reliable Evidence? Annual IAS London Event 2016

“Lies, Damned Lies and …”: Is There Such a Thing as Reliable Evidence? Annual IAS London Event 2016

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The IAS’s choice of the theme Evidence is intended to generate a dialogue between disciplines, and between academics and research users, about the role of evidence in academic enquiry, policy and everyday life. This dialogue will explore how evidence is constituted; how it is read, understood and evaluated; and how it is used. Information becomes evidence when it is assessed in relation to specific questions and discursive practices. This is a recursive relationship: evidence and the framework in which it is located are mutually constitutive.

To explore the dynamic nature of evidence and its formation and use, groups of researchers will be working on the following sub-theme activities. Evidence and Interdisciplinarity raises questions – which have relevance to all of the sub-theme activities – about how diverse kinds of evidence can (and sometimes cannot) be reconciled in interdisciplinary research. Other sub-themes address more specific aspects of evidence. Evidence, Policy and Regulation addresses the formation and use of evidence in the development of policy, legislation and practice. Evidence and Spatio-Temporality highlights the importance of the diverse social and material contexts in which evidence is located. Evidence and Experience focuses on how people engage with evidence, cognitively, imaginatively and phenomenologically, and considers how evidence and experience (for example in healthcare) can both challenge and support each other. Evidence and Representation considers the ways in which evidence is represented, observing that representational choices are often as critical as the evidence itself. Visual Evidence explores how visual forms and objects constitute evidence, communicate ideas and form knowledge, and examines the relationships between visual and other types of evidence. Finally, a sub-theme on Unreliable Evidence points to a reality that the extent to which evidence is perceived as reliable often varies according to rather unreliable social and political factors.

Evidence is therefore not only the ground of intellectual exploration, it also delineates a diverse, rapidly changing and much contested research landscape. In 2015-16, the IAS hopes to lead a range of journeys and conversations that will chart this landscape in new and illuminating ways.


Evidence and Interdisciplinarity

Sometimes the same research question is posed within different disciplinary fields, which then reach for different types of evidence to answer it. How can the different frameworks and types of evidence be reconciled or evaluated? Conversely, how is the same evidence used to address different questions and interpretative practices? The theme of evidence has considerable capacity to spark lively interdisciplinary debates, and discussions about the use, abuse and nature of evidence are central to interdisciplinary collaborations. ‘Data’ ‘facts’, ‘objects’ etc. become ‘evidence’ when embedded in specific discourses: thus a key question may be ‘evidence of what, and for what purpose?’ One starting point, therefore, is to ask how evidence is identified and selected, and according to which discursive frame.

In the majority of physical sciences, measurement plays a vital role in providing an evidential basis from which to test/abandon existing hypotheses, and to develop new ones. Quantification is also important in other disciplinary areas, for example in the statistical evidence used in social sciences, or in discourse analysis. However, for many researchers, particularly in the social sciences, arts and humanities – as well as in physical sciences such as biology – qualitative evidence, description, and complex interactions between less quantifiable processes, patterns and structures may be more important. The arts and humanities also focus more on notions of testimony and witnessing, highlighting the positionality of evidence and its interlocutors.

This sub-theme therefore considers the nature of evidence and ways to reconcile quantitative approaches and those in which broader and more diverse forms of data compose a largely qualitative evidential base. Its activities consider how evidence is selected and marshalled according to contrasting disciplinary and discursive paradigms, and there are, for example, projects examining evidence about animal minds, as well as research exploring the interfaces between cutting-edge computation and scientific evidence.

See: Thematic Activities

Evidence, Policy and Regulation

There are key links between the longstanding historical use of evidence in the legal arena, and its more recent employment in governance, policy and regulation. Evidence has an explicit role in legal processes and advocacy; in the provision of expert evidence, and in the establishment of proof in criminal and civil proceedings. Legal processes engage with a range of disciplinary perspectives, and the legal arena has developed multiple evidential conventions. For example, human rights conflicts rely heavily on medical evidence and/or descriptive testimony; land and water rights cases call upon long-term historical and ethnographic data; corporate disputes tend to centre on following documentary trails and raise issues about accountability.

There are often major disjunctions between the legal systems imposed by states and the alternate systems of law of indigenous or minority cultural groups. In all instances, the choices about which forms of evidence predominate reflect prevailing social and political values, and may create disparate levels of access to justice for different groups – for example for women, minority religious sects or indigenous communities. There is thus a need for research which ensures that diverse disciplinary, social and cultural perspectives are represented in the creation of evidential ‘norms’.

Similar needs surface when evidence is brought into policy development. Reliance on the input of experts and their research is central to ‘evidence based’ policies in all areas of governance, and there are clearly opportunities to consider the symbiotic and mutually constitutive relationships between policy and legislation.

Although it is generally seen as inherently beneficial, evidence may be used rhetorically, to manipulate perceptions, or obstructively, to avoid making difficult decisions (as some would argue has occurred in climate change debates). Evidence also has the potential to confuse when it is habitually followed by counter-evidence: for example, in the torrents of evidence about health and lifestyle presented to the public. As in the legal arena, the use of evidence in policy is reflective of prevailing ideologies, beliefs and values, and its employment in policy development is inevitably subject to changes in the political climate, and to the vagaries of debates in political institutions and in the media. Attention therefore needs to be given to the relationships between the use of evidence, media and the formation of public discourses.

There is already significant research underway in Durham on how policy makers use evidence, and how this process could function more effectively. The activities in this sub-theme therefore include work on how evidence is synthesised to ‘build a case’; how evidence is evaluated, for example in ‘talking therapies’ and in public health policies; and how evidence is used to compose models that inform public and commercial policies.

See: Thematic Activities

Evidence and Spatio-temporality

Evidence is collected and interpreted within specific temporal and spatial contexts, and it often contains spatial and temporal dimensions. It may focus on the analysis of past events, for example in historical analysis, or in legal cases. It may advance the understanding of contemporary or perennial issues, for instance in providing insights into social problems such as violence or religious conflicts, and it may be used to predict the effects of future scenarios, such as financial trends or climate change. The interpretation of evidence can also change dramatically over time, and, when its accumulation leads to a paradigm shift, evidence can ultimately cause its own reinterpretation.

Engagements with evidence may vary according to the spatial contexts in which it is presented: for example, weighing evidence in a courtroom or laboratory may differ considerably from undertaking this process within a political forum, or to aid literary analysis. The spatial location of evidence is often critical too. This sub-theme therefore contains activities focused on large spatio-temporal questions, in research concerned with Earth observation and new imaging technologies. And, on a more immediate scale, another project involves the archaeological analysis of evidence provided by artefacts and their distribution over time and space.

See: Thematic Activities

Evidence and Experience

Just as perspectives on what constitutes evidence and how it should be interpreted are influenced by different disciplinary, spatial or temporal contexts, ideas about evidence are constituted within specific cultural ‘lifeworlds’ and formed by their categories, beliefs and values. There may be fundamental cultural and sub-cultural differences in what people consider to be evidence, and in the forms of knowledge that constitute their understandings of the world. There is thus a case for comparative investigations into what is considered to be evidence, and how this is experienced and used within different cultural contexts.

The theme of evidence also has relevance for scholars investigating cognitive, religious, emotional and phenomenological experiences. How do people, individually and collectively, approach the notion of evidence in relation to direct experience? In what ways are human evaluations of evidence affected by specific physical, environmental and cultural factors? What is the role of sensory experience in composing responses to phenomenological evidence? And what evolutionary processes may have influenced human capacities to engage with different kinds of evidence? This sub-theme addresses some of these questions through research examining the evidence used in medical practices concerned with ‘states of rest’ and their effects on voice and breath; and through work on the interface between mind and cognition, as enabled by brain-imaging technologies.

See: Thematic Activities

Evidence and Representation

What are the pros and cons of text in presenting an evidential case? Is the conceptual linkage between what is visible and what is ‘real’ sufficiently persistent that (even in these days of photo-shop) a picture really is ‘worth a thousand words’? What is so evidentially compelling about graphs and numbers? Alternatively, how might we think about the ‘authority’ of text and its capacity to provide evidence in a highly precise and explicit form? And how is written evidence affected by transitions into print?

This sub-theme addresses the issue of evidence and representation with a view to providing fresh ideas about the various ways in which academic disciplines present their findings. It focuses particularly on research activities concerned with textual representation, with projects examining, for example, how astronomers have interpreted the evidence of ancient Babylonian texts; and how an awareness of what the ‘life of texts’ entails is essential for a critical understanding of the transmission of culture.

See: Thematic Activities

Visual Evidence

Art and material culture often differs radically from text in the extent to which it is self-explanatory. Yet, with sufficient historical or ethnographic knowledge about its images and forms, it may contain dense and multiple layers of evidential material. The evidence contained in visual arts, photography and artefacts is therefore a rich source of analysis in a range of disciplinary areas. And there are also some obvious overlaps with the (previous) representational sub-theme in considering how research findings are depicted.

The visual aspects of evidence are also important in considering the powerful influence of the pervasive notion that what can be seen ‘with our own eyes’ constitutes reality. The knowledge gained by seeing images and forms is one of the most compelling ways through which people collect and evaluate myriad kinds of evidence. Thus the use of photographic and filmed evidence (for example a CCTV clip of an event; an image of pollution or environmental degradation) can make or break an evidential case. And ‘seeing is believing’ also affects evaluations of evidence in the natural sciences, in which material evidence is popularly supposed to provide a direct view of reality.

This sub-theme therefore contains activities that address the ways in which visual evidence can be understood in museums and in the arts, and which examine issues of authenticity and attribution. Acknowledging that visual evidence is made visible or erased over time, there is research interpreting cityscapes, landscapes and marinescapes; and explorations about beliefs in encounters with ghosts and spirits.

See: Thematic Activities

Unreliable Evidence

The issue of reliability runs through many debates about evidence, and there is considerable disciplinary diversity in how evidence is assessed and interpreted in this regard. Sometimes the evidence itself is regarded as suspect, insubstantial, circumstantial or biased, and sometimes the discursive framework in which it is located, and the inherent assumptions that this contains, are called into question. Either – or both – can create a crisis of confidence in research findings. What can researchers in different disciplines learn from one another about how evidence can be weighted, biased or distorted?

There are multiple factors that can influence the extent to which evidence is regarded as reliable. For example, considerable weight is given to evidence that is materially based and visible. Yet the reliability of physical and visual evidence may be less substantial than is commonly believed. This sub-theme therefore explores the tensions between a ‘natural’ preference for tangible and visible evidence, and the potential for this to be challenged by other forms of analysis.

A related issue is that of experimentation: many scientific disciplines, particularly in the physical sciences, conform to the idea that theories must be testable, and should be modified or discarded according to experimentally derived evidence. Here, the notion of falsifiability plays a key role, in principle, if not always in scientific practice. In some areas, however, highly theoretical suppositions – for example String Theory and Multi-Verses – are more permissible, their evidential basis lying in the consistency applied to their construction. In other disciplinary areas, evidence is collected rather than produced: thus in the social sciences and humanities, the collection of existing evidence, or the observation and recording of data, provide the evidential basis for research. Cutting across disciplines are several key issues affecting the reliability of evidence: the act of measurement itself, and the uncertainties that it introduces; and the multiple ways in which choices about data, tools of analysis, and the treatment of data can lead to conflicting conclusions.

Across the disciplinary spectrum there are disparate views on the role of the observer and the extent to which interpretation is seen as intrinsic to analysis. Thus, in this sub-theme, useful questions are raised about the relationship between material and other kinds of data, evidence and knowledge, about what kinds of evidence are seen as unreliable and why, and whether there is, indeed, such a thing as completely reliable evidence.

See: Thematic Activities

About IAS Annual Themes

Any individual, research group, or department in Durham can propose annual themes or respond to calls for activities linked to the Institute's annual themes. The themes are broad, open to inflection, and designed to be as responsive as possible to research interests and strengths across the spectrum of disciplines at Durham.

The themes are announced 18 months ahead to allow input across all departments to enable inter- intra- and multi-disciplinary programmes of work to be mapped out for the year.

If you would like to propose an annual theme for a future year please email your suggestion to Linda Crowe