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Editors’ Choice: Discovery and Justification are Different: Notes on Science-ing the Humanities

By Trevor Owens | November 20, 2012

Computer Scientist: “You can’t do that with Topic Modeling.”

Humanist: “No, I can because I’m not a scientist. We have this thing called Hermeneutics.”

Computer Scientist: “…”

Humanist: “No really, we get to do what we want, we read texts against each other, and then there is this hermeneutic circle grounded in intersubjectivity.”

Computer Scientist: “Ok, but you still can’t make a claim using this as evidence.”

Humanist: “I think we are going to have to agree to disagree here, I think we have different ideas about how evidence works.”

*****

While watching the tweets from the Digital Humanities Topic Modeling meeting a few weeks ago I started to feel the above dialog play out. I wasn’t there, and I am not trying to pigeonhole anyone here. I’ve seen this kind of back and forth happen in a range of different situations where humanities types start picking up and using algorithmic, computational, and statistical techniques. What of all this counts for what? What can you say based on the results of a given technique? One way to resolve this is to say that humanists and scientists should have different rules for what counts as evidence. I am increasingly feeling the need to reject this different rules approach.

I don’t think the issue here is different ways of knowing, incompatible paradigms, or anything big and lofty like that. I think the issue at the heart of this back and forth dialog is about two different contexts. This is about what you can do in the generative context of discovery vs. what you get can do in the context of justifying  a set of claims.

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