Methodological safety pin

4 minute read

There is a trope in digital humanities related articles that I find particularly awkward. Just now I stumbled across another example, and maybe it is a good thing to muze about it a short bit. Whence the example comes I don’t think is important as I am interested in the trope in general and not in this particular instance per sé. Besides, I like the authors and have nothing against their research, but before you know it flames are flying everywhere. So in the interest of all I file this one for prosperity anonymized.

This is the quote in question: “The first step towards the development of an open-source mining technology that can be used by historians without specific computer skills is to obtain a hands-on experience with research groups that use currently available open-source mining tools.”

Readers of digital humanities related essays, articles, reviews etc. will have found ample variations on this theme in the literature. From where I am sitting such statements rig up a dangerous strawman or facade. There are a number of hidden (and often not so hidden at all) assumptions that are glossed over with such statements.

First of all there is the assumption that it is obvious that as a scholar without specific computer skills you still should be able to use computer technology. This is a nice democratic principle I guess, but is it a wise one too?

Second, there’s the suggestion that all computer technology is homogeneous. There is no need to differentiate between levels and types of interfaces and technologies. It can all sweepingly be nicely represented as this amorphous mass of “open-source mining technology”. I know it is not entirely fair to pin this on the authors of such statements. Indeed the authors may be very well aware that they are generalizing a bit in service of the less experienced reader. However, the scholarly equivalent would be to say that the first step for a computer scientist that wants to understand history is to get a hands-on experience with historians. Even if that might be in general true, from scholarly arguing I expect more precision. You do not ‘understand history’. One understands tiny, very specific parts of it, maybe, when approached with very specific very narrowly formulated research questions, and meticulous methodology. I do not understand why the wide brush is suddenly allowed if the methodology turns digital.

Third, and this is the assumption that I find most problematic: there is the assumption (rather axiom maybe) that there shall be a middle man, a bridge builder, a guide, a mediator, or go-in-between that shall translate the expertise from the computer skilled persons involved towards the scholar. You hardly ever read it the other way round by the way, it is never the computer scientist in need of some scholarly wisdom. This in particular is a reflex and a trope I do not understand. When you need expertise you talk to the expert, and you try to acquire the expertise. But when it comes to computational expertise we (scholars) are suddenly in need of a mediator. Someone who goes in between and translates between expertises. In much literature—that in itself is part of this process of expertise exchange—this is now a sine qua non that does not get questioned at all: of course you do not talk to the experts directly, and of course you do not engage with the technology directly. When your car stalls, you don’t dive into the motor compartiment with your scholarly hands do you?!

Maybe not—though I at least try to determine even with my limited knowledge of car engines what might be the trouble. But I sure a hell talk to the expert directly. The mechanic is going to fix my car, I want to know what the trouble is and what he is going to do. Yes well, the scholar retorts, but quite frankly I do not talk so much on the car engine trouble to my mechanic at all! Fair enough, might not be your cup of tea. But the methodology of your research should be. Suppose you are diagnosed with cancer, do you want to talk only to the secretary of your doctor?

Besides, it is about the skills. A standard technique to disguise logical fallacies in reasoning is to substitute object phrases. I play this little game with these tropes too: “The first step towards the development of a hand grenade that can be used by historians without specific combat skills is to obtain a hands-on experience with soldiers that use currently available hand grenades.”

This doesn’t invalidate the general truthiness of the logic, but it does serve to lay bare its methodological fallacy: if you want to use that technology, better acquire some basic skills from the experts if you want to rely safely on the outcome of its use.

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