The Cambridge Dictionary defines evidence as “one or more reasons for believing that something is or is not true” (Cambridge dictionary, 2020, evidence entry). This definition reveals some of the core characteristics of how we understand evidence today, namely as something connected to a distinction between “true” and “not true”. But the vagueness of “reasons for believing” in the definition also leans into the ambiguity in this otherwise seemingly confident concept: what is a legitimate reason for believing? And where do these reasons come from?
Evidence sits at the very top of the hierarchy of scientific knowledge production, particularly within the natural sciences. One of the arenas we know this word from is medicine, where evidence-based medicine is a current “gold standard”, particularly as it is enacted in randomized clinical controls (Keshet, 2009; Timmermans and Berg, 2003). Here, evidence-based involves the production of data on a specific phenomenon, such as treatments or medications, and is based centrally on eliminating bias in order to produce results about what is either true or not true about the phenomenon under investigation. Not everything can count as evidence within this framework; singular, embodied experiences, for example, are often discounted or even seen as being explicitly what evidence is not. Rather, what can become evidence is something we associate with the neutral Laboratory;, that which is extracated from the subjective, the personal; removed, in short, from context.
However, evidence’s position at the apex of knowledge hierarchies has not spared it from cultural and social scientific poking and prodding. Here, STS scholars, such as Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway and Karen Barad have argued that evidence is neither neutral nor removed from context, but is instead produced as a part of deeply embedded socio-technical-material processes: Haraway argues that all knowledge is ‘situated’ and is thus subject to partial perspectives (1988) while Latour (1986) and Barad (2007) argue that knowledge is fundamentally shaped through its apparatus of production. This work thus shifts our perspective on evidence from being “untainted” by and removed from human bias to in fact being something contingent, produced and embedded within networks with histories. This approach to evidence, then, also entails a shift from framing evidence in terms of asking: What can this evidence prove as truth or not truth? to: What processes are involved in the making and acceptance of ‘evidence’ as indicative of ‘truth’? In particular, Latour and Haraway’s work have been highly influential for how otherwise high-status concepts such as evidence – and the associated concepts objectivity and truth – might be approached from STS perspectives; namely, as something whose production can be studied. Something that has a history and that comes from somewhere; and with this is, in fact, highly contextual.
Author: Katrine Meldgaard Kjær
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Cambridge dictionary (2020) evidence. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/evidence.
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