A bit more on the tension between heuristic and evidentiary methods.

Just a quick link to this post at cliotropic, (h/t Dan Cohen) which dramatizes what’s concretely at stake in the tension I was describing earlier between heuristic and evidentiary applications of technology.

Shane Landrum reports that historians on the job market may run into skeptical questions from social scientists — who apparently don’t like to see visualization used as a heuristic. They call it “fishing for a thesis.”

I think I understand the source of the tension here. In a discipline focused on the present, where evidence can be produced essentially at will, a primary problem that confronts researchers is that you can prove anything if you just keep rolling the dice often enough. “Fishing expeditions” really are a problem for this kind of enterprise, because there’s always going to be some sort of pattern in your data. If you wait to define a thesis until you see what patterns emerge, then you’re going to end up crafting a thesis to fit what might be an accidental bounce of the dice in a particular experiment.

Obviously history and literary studies are engaged in a different sort of enterprise, because our archives are for the most part fixed. We occasionally discover new documents, but history as a whole isn’t an experiment we can repeat, so we’re not inclined to view historical patterns as things that “might not have statistical significance.” I mean, of course in a sense all historical patterns may have been accidents. But if they happened, they’re significant — the question of whether they would happen again if we repeated the experiment isn’t one that we usually spend much time debating. So “fishing for patterns” isn’t usually something that bothers us; in fact, we’re likely to value heuristics that help us discover them.

By tedunderwood

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter he is @Ted_Underwood.

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