Where Do Facts Come From?

January 23, 2017

Photo by Lisa May @LDMay on Twitter

The phrase “alternative facts” was floating around the media (social and otherwise) this weekend, and it made my head explode on multiple levels. First, because I work at a university, and I’m pretty sure if you use those on exams, you fail. Second, because I spend untold hours chasing down sources, and additional sources to check those sources with, to ensure that every single piece of information that goes into one of my books is in fact, a fact. Third, because I used to be a scientist. I MADE facts.

And those facts, unlike the kind people were discussing on the internets, had to be approved by a bunch of other scientists before I was allowed to talk about them in public. We call this “peer review,” and it’s meant to ensure that new conclusions, and the facts they are based on, really are valid and trustworthy.

Here’s how it works:
  • Scientist does some experiments to discover new things about the world.
  • Scientist writes a paper about it.
  • Scientist sends paper to a scientific journal.
  • Editor of the journal chooses 2 to 5 other scientists who work in the same field to review the paper.
  • Peer reviewers tear paper into tiny shreds.
  • Scientist receives report from reviewers.
  • Scientist cries, swears, eats pounds of chocolate dunked in adult beverages.
  • Scientist addresses every single comment the reviewers made. Scientist does new experiments, runs new tests, or cleans up the writing so the paper makes more sense.
  • Scientist explains to editor how she has responded to every single comment. If scientist has chosen not to make a change suggested by a reviewer, she has to make a VERY good argument as to why it’s not needed.
  • In extreme cases, peer review is repeated.
  • The paper is published.


I’ve published a dozen papers about research I did for my PhD, and I can tell you that it’s not uncommon for the response letter to be LONGER than the original paper. The process is both lengthy and arduous.

So why do we put ourselves through it? Because scientists, like small children everywhere, know that telling lies using “alternative facts” is wrong.

Which begs another question – why are kids and scientists held to a higher standard than everyone else?

What are your thoughts on this issue? Share in the comments.




9 Comments on ‘Where Do Facts Come From?’

  1. Hear, hear!

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    1. Thanks, Paula!

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  2. I’m quite familiar with the process of research and publication of articles, and it is anything but smooth and pretty. I’m actually glad you wrote about it so that people are exposed to what’s involved.

    As for this: “Which begs another question – why are kids and scientists held to a higher standard than everyone else?” Very, very good question!

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    1. Every time I tell undergraduates that this is why their profs insist on peer reviewed sources, their eyes fall out of their heads (and they get a little frightened about what awaits them as grad students!).

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  3. Stop killing my dream. I now weigh 130lbs.

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    1. Hahaha! I think we can file that one under “harmless delusion,” which is a totally different category. You are gorgeous either way, my friend.

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  4. EXCELLENT! Like you, my head exploded when I heard that phrase ‘alternate facts’ used. Orwell would tell us “I told you so” with terms like ‘post truth’ and ‘alternate facts.’ I have taken the liberty of sharing your blog on my Facebook page and I hope that it gets shared widely – it definitely needs to be. Did you hear the new science guy (forget his name – I was running during the interview) on Mainstreet on CBC today? They were talking about ‘alternate facts’ on that as well. I’m sure it’s getting a lot of discussion and I’m sure the memes will come fast and furious on Facebook (and other social media that I don’t use). THANK YOU for writing this! I’m glad to have my name with yours on some of the papers that resulted from the process you outline 🙂

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    1. I missed the CBC story – I’ll have to google. And I’m proud to be a co-author of yours, as well.

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