In responding to Stanley Fish last week, I tried to acknowledge that the “digital humanities,” in spite of their name, are not centrally about numbers. The movement is very broad, and at the broadest level, it probably has more to do with networked communication than it does with quantitative analysis.
The older tradition of “humanities computing” — which was about numbers — has been absorbed into this larger movement. But it’s definitely the part of DH that humanists are least comfortable with, and it often has to apologize for itself. So, for instance, I’ve spent much of the last year reminding humanists that they’re already using quantitative text mining in the form of search engines — so it can’t be that scary.* Kathleen Fitzpatrick recently wrote a post suggesting that “one key role for a ‘worldly’ digital humanities may well be helping to break contemporary US culture of its unthinking association of numbers with verifiable reality….” Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines manages to call for an “algorithmic criticism” while at the same time suggesting that humanists will use numbers in ways that are altogether different from the way scientists use them (or at least different from “scientism,” an admittedly ambiguous term).
I think all three of us (Stephen, Kathleen, and myself) are making strategically necessary moves. Because if you tell humanists that we do (also) need to use numbers the way scientists use them, your colleagues are going to mutter about naïve quests for certainty, shake their heads, and stop listening. So digital humanists are rhetorically required to construct positivist scapegoats who get hypothetically chased from our villages before we can tell people about the exciting new kinds of analysis that are becoming possible. And, to be clear, I think the people I’ve cited (including me) are doing that in fair and responsible ways.
However, I’m in an “eppur si muove” mood this morning, so I’m going to forget strategy for a second and call things the way I see them. <Begin Galilean outburst>
In reality, scientists are not naïve about the relationship between numbers and certainty, because they spend a lot of time thinking about statistics. Statistics is the science of uncertainty, and it insists — as forcefully as any literary theorist could — that every claim comes accompanied by a specific kind of ignorance. Once you accept that, you can stop looking for absolute knowledge, and instead reason concretely about your own relative uncertainty in a given instance. I think humanists’ unfamiliarity with this idea may explain why our critiques of data mining so often taken the form of pointing to a small error buried somewhere in the data: unfamiliarity with statistics forces us to fall back on a black-and-white model of truth, where the introduction of any uncertainty vitiates everything.
Moreover, the branch of statistics most relevant to text mining (Bayesian inference) is amazingly, almost bizarrely willing to incorporate subjective belief into its definition of knowledge. It insists that definitions of probability have to depend not only on observed evidence, but on the “prior probabilities” that we expected before we saw the evidence. If humanists were more familiar with Bayesian statistics, I think it would blow a lot of minds.
I know the line about “lies, damn lies, and so on,” and it’s certainly true that statistics can be abused, as this classic xkcd comic shows. But everything can be abused. The remedy for bad verbal argument is not to “remember that speech should stay in its proper sphere” — it’s to speak better and more critically. Similarly, the remedy for bad quantitative argument is not “remember that numbers have to stay in their proper sphere”; it’s to learn statistics and reason more critically.
None of this is to say that we can simply borrow tools or methods from scientists unchanged. The humanities have a lot to add — especially when it comes to the social and historical character of human behavior. I think there are fascinating advances taking place in data science right now. But when you take apart the analytic tools that computer scientists have designed, you often find that they’re based on specific mistaken assumptions about the social character of language. For instance, there’s a method called “Topics over Time” that I want to use to identify trends in the written record (Wang and McCallum, 2006). The people who designed it have done really impressive work. But if a humanist takes apart the algorithm underlying this method, they will find that it assumes that every trend can be characterized as a smooth curve called a “Beta distribution.” Whereas in fact, humanists have evidence that the historical trajectory of a topic is often more complex than that, in ways that really matter. So before I can use this tool, I’m going to have to fix that part of the method.
But this is a problem that can be fixed, in large part, by fixing the numbers. Humanists have a real contribution to make to the science of data mining, but it’s a contribution that can be embodied in specific analytic insights: it’s not just to hover over the field like the ghost of Ben Kenobi and warn it about hubris.
For related thoughts, somewhat more temperate than the outburst above, see this excellent comment by Matthew Wilkens, responding to a critique of his work by Jeremy Rosen.
* I credit Ben Schmidt for this insight so often that regular readers are probably bored. But for the record: it comes from him.