One way numbers can after all make us dumber.

[Used to have a more boring title still preserved in the URL. -Ed.] In general I’m deeply optimistic about the potential for dialogue between the humanities and quantitative disciplines. I think there’s a lot we can learn from each other, and I don’t think the humanities need any firewall to preserve their humanistic character.

But there is one place where I’m coming to agree with people who say that quantitative methods can make us dumber. To put it simply: numbers tend to distract the eye. If you quantify part of your argument, critics (including your own internal critic) will tend to focus on problems in the numbers, and ignore the deeper problems located elsewhere.

I’ve discovered this in my own practice. For instance, when I blogged about genre in large digital collections. I got a lot of useful feedback on those blog posts; it was probably the most productive conversation I’ve ever had as a scholar. But most of the feedback focused on potential problems in the quantitative dimension of my argument. E.g., how representative was this collection as a sample of print culture? Or, what smoothing strategies should I be using to plot results? My own critical energies were focused on similar questions.

Those questions were useful, and improved the project greatly, but in most cases they didn’t rock its foundations. And with a year’s perspective, I’ve come to recognize that there were after all foundation-rocking questions to be posed. For instance, in early versions of this project, I hadn’t really ironed out the boundary between “poetry” and “drama.” Those categories overlap, after all! This wasn’t creating quantitative problems (Jordan Sellers and I were handling cases consistently), but it was creating conceptual ones: the line “poetry” below should probably be labeled “nondramatic verse.”

Results I think are still basically reliable, although we need to talk more about that word "genre."

Results I think are still basically reliable, although we need to talk more about that word “genre.”

The biggest problem was even less quantitative, and more fundamental: I needed to think harder about the concept of genre itself. As I model different kinds of genre, and read about similar (traditional and digital) projects by other scholars, I increasingly suspect the elephant in the room is that the word may not actually hold together. Genre may be a box we’ve inherited for a whole lot of basically different things. A bibliography is a genre; so is the novel; so is science fiction; so is the Kailyard school; so is acid house. But formally, socially, and chronologically, those are entities of very different kinds.

Skepticism about foundational concepts has been one of the great strengths of the humanities. The fact that we have a word for something (say genre or the individual) doesn’t necessarily imply that any corresponding entity exists in reality. Humanists call this mistake “reification,” and we should hold onto our skepticism about it. If I hand you a twenty-page argument using Google ngrams to prove that the individual has been losing ground to society over the last hundred years, your response should not be “yeah, but how representative is Google Books, and how good is their OCR?” (Those problems are relatively easy to solve.) Your response should be, “Uh … how do you distinguish ‘the individual’ from ‘society’ again?”

As I said, humanists have been good at catching reification; it’s a strength we should celebrate. But I don’t see this habit of skepticism as an endangered humanistic specialty that needs to be protected by a firewall. On the contrary, we should be exporting our skepticism! This habit of questioning foundational concepts can be just as useful in the sciences and social sciences, where quantitative methods similarly distract researchers from more fundamental problems. [I don’t mean to suggest that it’s never occurred to scientists to resist this distraction: as Matt Wilkens points out in the comments, they’re often good at it. -Ed.]

In psychology, for instance, emphasis on clearing a threshold of statistical significance (defined as a p-value) frequently distracts researchers from more fundamental questions of experimental design (like, are we attempting to measure an entity that actually exists?) Andrew Gelman persuasively suggests that this is not just a problem caused by quantification but can be more broadly conceived as a “dangerous lure of certainty.” In any field, it can be tempting to focus narrowly on the degree of certainty associated with a hypothesis. But it’s often more important to ask whether the underlying question is interesting and meaningfully framed.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that humanists need to postpone quantitative research until we know how to define long-debated concepts. I’m now pretty skeptical about the coherence of this word genre, for instance, but it’s a skepticism I reached precisely by attempting to iron out details in a quantitative model. Questions about accuracy can prompt deeper conceptual questions, which reframe questions of accuracy, in a virtuous cycle. The important thing, I think, is not to let yourself stall out on the “accuracy” part of the cycle: it offers a tempting illusion of perfectibility, but that’s not actually our goal.

Postscript: Scott Weingart conveys the point I’m trying to make in a nicely compressed way by saying that it flips the conventional worry that the mere act of quantification will produce unearned trust. In academia, the problem is more often inverse: we’re so strongly motivated to criticize numbers that we forget to be skeptical about everything else.

Interesting times for literary theory.

A couple of weeks ago, after reading abstracts from DH2013, I said that the take-away for me was that “literary theory is about to get interesting again” – subtweeting the course of history in a way that I guess I ought to explain.

A 1915 book by Chicago's "Professor of Literary Theory."

A 1915 book by Chicago’s “Professor of Literary Theory.”

In the twentieth century, “literary theory” was often a name for the sparks that flew when literary scholars pushed back against challenges from social science. Theory became part of the academic study of literature around 1900, when the comparative study of folklore seemed to reveal coherent patterns in national literatures that scholars had previously treated separately. Schools like the University of Chicago hired “Professors of Literary Theory” to explore the controversial possibility of generalization.* Later in the century, structural linguistics posed an analogous challenge, claiming to glimpse an organizing pattern in language that literary scholars sought to appropriate and/or deconstruct. Once again, sparks flew.

I think literary scholars are about to face a similarly productive challenge from the discipline of machine learning — a subfield of computer science that studies learning as a problem of generalization from limited evidence. The discipline has made practical contributions to commercial IT, but it’s an epistemological method founded on statistics more than it is a collection of specific tools, and it tends to be intellectually adventurous: lately, researchers are trying to model concepts like “character” (pdf) and “gender,” citing Judith Butler in the process (pdf).

At DH2013 and elsewhere, I see promising signs that literary scholars are gearing up to reply. In some cases we’re applying methods of machine learning to new problems; in some cases we’re borrowing the discipline’s broader underlying concepts (e.g. the notion of a “generative model”); in some cases we’re grappling skeptically with its premises. (There are also, of course, significant collaborations between scholars in both fields.)

This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I realize a marriage between machine learning and literary theory sounds implausible: people who enjoy one of these things are pretty likely to believe the other is fraudulent and evil.** But after reading through a couple of ML textbooks,*** I’m convinced that literary theorists and computer scientists wrestle with similar problems, in ways that are at least loosely congruent. Neither field is interested in the mere accumulation of data; both are interested in understanding the way we think and the kinds of patterns we recognize in language. Both fields are interested in problems that lack a single correct answer, and have to be mapped in shades of gray (ML calls these shades “probability”). Both disciplines are preoccupied with the danger of overgeneralization (literary theorists call this “essentialism”; computer scientists call it “overfitting”). Instead of saying “every interpretation is based on some previous assumption,” computer scientists say “every model depends on some prior probability,” but there’s really a similar kind of self-scrutiny involved.

It’s already clear that machine learning algorithms (like topic modeling) can be useful tools for humanists. But I think I glimpse an even more productive conversation taking shape, where instead of borrowing fully-formed “tools,” humanists borrow the statistical language of ML to think rigorously about different kinds of uncertainty, and return the favor by exposing the discipline to boundary cases that challenge its methods.

Won’t quantitative models of phenomena like plot and genre simplify literature by flattening out individual variation? Sure. But the same thing could be said about Freud and Lévi-Strauss. When scientists (or social scientists) write about literature they tend to produce models that literary scholars find overly general. Which doesn’t prevent those models from advancing theoretical reflection on literature! I think humanists, conversely, can warn scientists away from blind alleys by reminding them that concepts like “gender” and “genre” are historically unstable. If you assume words like that have a single meaning, you’re already overfitting your model.

Of course, if literary theory and computer science do have a conversation, a large part of the conversation is going to be a meta-debate about what the conversation can or can’t achieve. And perhaps, in the end, there will be limits to the congruence of these disciplines. Alan Liu’s recent essay in PMLA pushes against the notion that learning algorithms can be analogous to human interpretation, suggesting that statistical models become meaningful only through the inclusion of human “seed concepts.” I’m not certain how deep this particular disagreement goes, because I think machine learning researchers would actually agree with Liu that statistical modeling never starts from a tabula rasa. Even “unsupervised” algorithms have priors. More importantly, human beings have to decide what kind of model is appropriate for a given problem: machine learning aims to extend our leverage over large volumes of data, not to take us out of the hermeneutic circle altogether.

But as Liu’s essay demonstrates, this is going to be a lively, deeply theorized conversation even where it turns out that literary theory and computer science have fundamental differences. These disciplines are clearly thinking about similar questions: Liu is right to recognize that unsupervised learning, for instance, raises hermeneutic questions of a kind that are familiar to literary theorists. If our disciplines really approach similar questions in incompatible ways, it will be a matter of some importance to understand why.

0804784469* <plug> For more on “literary theory” in the early twentieth century, see the fourth chapter of Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (2013, hot off the press). The book has a lovely cover, but unfortunately has nothing to do with machine learning. </plug>

** This post grows out of a conversation I had with Eleanor Courtemanche, in which I tried to convince her that machine learning doesn’t just reproduce the biases you bring to it.

*** Practically, I usually rely on Data Mining: Practical Machine Learning Tools and Techniques (Ian Witten, Eibe Frank, Mark Hall), but to understand the deeper logic of the field I’ve been reading Machine Learning: A Probabilistic Perspective (Kevin P. Murphy). Literary theorists may appreciate Murphy’s remark that wealth has a long-tailed distribution, “especially in plutocracies such as the USA” (43).

PS later that afternoon: Belatedly realize I didn’t say anything about the most controversial word in my original tweet: “literary theory is about to get interesting again.” I suppose I tacitly distinguish literary theory (which has been a little sleepy lately, imo) from theory-sans-adjective (which has been vigorous, although hard to define). But now I’m getting into a distinction that’s much too slippery for a short blog post.