Seemingly objective quantitative data you cannot

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Chapter 4 / Exercise 165
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seemingly objective quantitative data, you cannot avoid “spin- ning” them: you must decide what to count, how to categorize the numbers, how to order them. Even photographs and record- ings can only represent evidence in a particular way, giving it a slant or shape. The second problem is that you have to depend on the reports of others, who have already shaped their evidence. It is rare for any researcher to rely only on evidence he collected himself, even rarer if he faces a deadline next week. For example, suppose you wanted to back up a claim that the cult of celebrity has distorted rational economic decision-making with evidence of how much more athletes and entertainers earn than do top government of- ficials. You could obtain official reports of government salaries, but those athletes and entertainers would be unlikely to share their check stubs or tax returns (which are themselves reports of reports). So you would have to rely on reports of those re- ports of salaries. And unless you can talk to the people who did the counting, you’ll be four or five reports away from the evidence itself. So as you collect and report evidence, most of it
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Chapter 4 / Exercise 165
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144 m a k i n g a c l a i m a n d s u p p o r t i n g i t already at least thirdhand, you have to remember that all the reporters in the chain did their own selecting, arranging, and tidying up. The often dubious quality of reports of reports is why people who read lots of research are so demanding about “proof.” If you collected evidence yourself, they want to know what methods you used. If you used sources, they expect you to find primary sources, or if not, sources as close to the evidence itself as you can get. And they want complete citations and a bibliography so that they can go look for themselves. In short, they want to know the complete chain of reports between themselves and the evi- dence itself. In an age when we are all subjected to research re- ports and opinion surveys that are at best dubious and at worst faked, you have to give your readers good reason to suspend their justified skepticism, because the last link in that chain of account- ability is you. Why Trust Reports of Evidence? In the early days of experimental science, researchers conducted experiments before witnesses, reputable scientists who could ob- serve the experiments firsthand and attest to the accuracy of the reported evidence. Contemporary researchers can’t rely on wit- nesses anymore. Instead, each area of study has standardized methodologies for collecting and reporting evidence. Today it is those methodologies that will guarantee that your evidence is reli- able. If you follow the procedures for collecting and reporting evi- dence that have become standard in your field, you encourage readers to accept your evidence at your word, without wanting to see it for themselves or to hear about it from witnesses.

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