Editors’ Choice: When you have a MALLET, everything looks like a nail

One reason I’m interested in ship logs is that they give some distance to think about problems in reading digital texts. That’s particularly true for machine learning techniques. In my last post, an appendix to the long whaling post, I talked about using K-means clustering and k-nearest neighbor methods to classify whaling voyages. But digital humanists working with texts hardly ever use k-means clustering; instead, they gravitate towards a more sophisticated form of clustering called topic modeling, particularly David Blei’s LDA (so much so that I’m going to use ‘LDA’ and ‘topic modeling’ synonymously here). There’s a whole genre of introductory posts out there encouraging humanists to try LDA: Scott Weingart‘s wraps a lot of them together, and Miriam Posner‘s is freshest off the presses.
So as an appendix to that appendix, I want to use ship’s data to think about how we use LDA. I’ve wondered for a while why there’s such a rush to make topic modeling into the machine learning tool for historians and literature scholars. It’s probably true that if you only apply one algorithm to your texts, it should be LDA. But most humanists are better off applying zero clusterings, and most of the remainder should be applying several. I haven’t mastered the arcana of various flavors of topic modeling to my own satisfaction, and don’t feel qualified to deliver a full-on jeremiad against its uses and abuses. Suffice it to say, my basic concerns are:

  1. The ease of use for LDA with basic settings means humanists are too likely to take its results as ‘magic’, rather than interpreting it as the output of one clustering technique among many.
  2. The primary way of evaluating its result (confirming that the top words and texts in each topic ‘make sense’) ignores most of the model output and doesn’t map perfectly onto the expectations we have for the topics. (A Gary King study, for example, that empirically ranks document clusterings based on human interpretation of ‘informativeness’ found Direchlet-prior based clustering the least effective of several methods.)

Ship data gives an interesting perspective on these problems. So, at the risk of descending into self-parody, I ran a couple topic models on the points in the ship’s logs as a way of thinking through how that clustering works. (For those who only know LDA as a text-classification system, this isn’t as loony as it sounds; in computer science, the algorithm gets thrown at all sorts of unrelated data, from images to music).

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