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Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one.

September 17, 2012

Maria Konnikova in Scientific American:

There’s a certain allure to the elegance of mathematics, the precision of the hard sciences. That much is undeniable. But does the appeal mean that quantitative approaches are always germane? Hardly—and I doubt anyone would argue the contrary. Yet, over and over, with alarming frequency, researchers and scholars have felt the need to take clear-cut, scientific-seeming approaches to disciplines that have, until recent memory, been far from any notions of precise quantifiability. And the trend is an alarming one.

Take, for instance, a recent paper that draws conclusions about the relative likelihood that certain stories are originally based in real-world events by looking at the (very complicated) mathematics of social networks. The researchers first model what the properties of real social networks look like. They then apply that model to certain texts (Beowulf, the Iliad, and Táin Bó Cuailnge, on the mythological end, andLes Misérables, Richard III, the Fellowship of the Ring, and Harry Potter on the fictional end) to see how much the internal social networks of the characters resemble those that exist in real life. And then, based on that resemblance, they conclude which narratives are more likely to have originated in actual history: to wit, Beowulf and the Iliad are more likely reality-based than Shakespeare or Tolkien or—gasp—even that most real-life-like of narratives, Harry Potter. (Táin, on the other hand, isn’t very lifelike at all—but if you remove the six central characters, which you can totally do since they are likely amalgams of real ones, it, too, starts looking historical.)

But what is the analysis really doing? And more pressingly: what is the point? [More]

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