Category Archives: statistics
“Of course, in the study of such complicated phenomena as occur in biology and sociology, the mathematical method cannot play the same role as, let us say, in physics. In all cases, but especially where the phenomena are most complicated, we must bear in mind, if we are not to lose our way in meaningless play with formulas, that the application of mathematics is significant only if the concrete phenomena have already been made the subject of a profound theory.“
A. D. Aleksandrov, A General View of Mathematics. In: A. D. Aleksandrov, A. N. Kolmogorov, M. A. Lavrent’ev, Mathematics: Its Content, Methods and Meaning. Moscow 1956 (trans. 1964)
While scholars often underline their commitment to non-deterministic conceptions of “effects”, models of causality in the human and social sciences can still be a bit simplistic sometimes. But a more subtle approach to causality would have to concede that, while most often cumulative and contradictory, lines of causation can sometimes be quite straightforward. Just consider this example from Commensuration as a Social Process, a great text from 1998 by Espeland and Stevens:
Faculty at a well-regarded liberal arts college recently received unexpected, generous raises. Some, concerned over the disparity between their comfortable salaries and those of the college’s arguably underpaid staff, offered to share their raises with staff members. Their offers were rejected by administrators, who explained that their raises were ‘not about them.’ Faculty salaries are one criterion magazines use to rank colleges. (p.313)
This is a rather direct effect of ranking techniques on something very tangible, namely salary. But the relative straightforwardness of the example also highlights a bifurcation of effects: faculty gets paid more, staff less. The specific construction of the ranking mechanism in question therefore produces social segmentation. Or does it simply reinforce the existing segmentation between faculty and staff that lead college evaluators to construct the indicators the way they did in the first place? Well, there goes the simplicity…
While there are probably a lot of people that have stumbled over the Google Ngram Viewer, it is safe to assume that fewer have read the paper (Science, January 2011) by Michel et al. that documents the project and gives a good idea of the kind of “big iron” science we can expect to capture quite a lot of attention over the next couple of years. According to the (14, one being “The Google Books Team”, another Steven Pinker) authors, the projet – fittingly termed culturomics – is based on a sample of 5,195,769 books, which apparently represents roughly 4% of all the books ever published. They easiest way to show the scope of what the researchers aim to do is quoting the abstract in full:
We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of ‘culturomics,’ focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. Culturomics extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities.
Next to the sheer size of the corpus, there are several things that are quite remarkable with this project:
1) While the paper is full of graphs, it is immensely interesting that many of the measurements taken can be “reenacted” with the Ngram Viewer. In a passage that diagnoses “a greater focus on the present” in more recent publications, the authors show that the half-life (i.e. the number of years it takes for a date to get to half the frequency value of an initial peak) of dates gets much shorter over time. We can easily graph the result ourselves:This possibility to query the data ourselves (as well as the comprehensive data sharing) represents quite a change in how we can relate to the results as scholars and while only the most well-funded projects will be able to provide a “companion” data-tool, there is a real epistemological shift underway. From a teaching perspective, the hands-on approach may actually be even more valuable.
2) We increasingly have very comprehensive available data sets that can be used as concept markers in very different contexts. In this case, the authors used 740.000 names of persons from Wikipedia to study different aspects of fame. But one could easily imagine using GeoNames to perform a similar survey of the ebb and fall of geographic prominence. I am quite sure that linguists will soon bring together the Ngram data with WordNet to study concept evolution and other things.
3) While the examples developed in the article are fascinating – and there will certainly be many more – the epistemological horizon is quite vague for the moment. There is no question that historical linguistics will have a field day plunging into the data, but the intellectual rationale behind the project of culturomics is a bit thin for the moment:
Culturomics is the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture. Books are a beginning, but we must also incorporate newspapers, manuscripts, maps, artwork, and a myriad of other human creations. Of course, many voices—already lost to time— lie forever beyond our reach.
Culturomic results are a new type of evidence in the humanities. As with fossils of ancient creatures, the challenge of culturomics lies in the interpretation of this evidence.
I would argue that it is not so much the interpretation of evidence that represents a challenge but the integration of these new computer-based approaches into meaningful research agendas that ask non-trivial questions. While it may be interesting to be able to attach a number to the competence of Nazi censorship efforts, this competence was never very much in doubt and while numbers and graphs may confer an aura of scientific respectability, the findings will most probably not add anything to our understanding of national socialism.
While it is increasingly unpopular to cite Snow’s Two Cultures, this early proposal for a quantitative approach to culture (in its historic dimension) will give rise to all kinds of polemics, misunderstandings, and demarkation efforts. The public availability of a query tool is, however, a real reason for hope: humanities scholars will be able to try it out for themselves and with a bit of luck, we will have a broader view on its usefulness for cultural analysis in a couple of month.
My colleague Theo Röhle and I went to the Computational Turn conference this week. While I would have preferred to hear a bit more on truly digital research methodology (in the fully scientific sense of the word “method”), the day was really quite interesting and the weather unexpectedly gorgeous. Most of the papers are available on the conference site, make sure to have a look. The text I wrote with Theo tried to structure some of the epistemological challenges and problems to take into account when working with digital methods. Here’s a tidbit:
…digital technology is set to change the way scholars work with their material, how they “see” it and interact with it. The question is, now, how well the humanities are prepared for these transformations. If there truly is a paradigm shift on the horizon, we will have to dig deeper into the methodological assumptions that are folded into the new tools. We will need to uncover the concepts and models that have carried over from different disciplines into the programs we employ today…
Over the last couple of years, the social sciences have been increasingly interested in using computer-based tools to analyze the complexity of the social ant farm that is the Web. Issuecrawler was one of the first of such tools and today researchers are indeed using very sophisticated pieces of software to “see” the Web. Sciences-Po, one of these rather strange french institutions that were founded to educate the elite but which now have to increasingly justify their existence by producing research, has recently hired Bruno Latour to head their new médialab, which will most probably head into that very direction. Given Latour’s background (and the fact that Paul Girard, a very competent former colleague at my lab, heads the R&D departement), this should be really very interesting. I do hope that there will be occasion to tackle the most compelling methodological question when in comes to the application of computers (or mathematics in general) to analyzing human life, which is beautifully framed in a rather reluctant statement from 1889 by Karl Pearson, a major figure in the history of statistics:
“Personally I ought to say that there is, in my own opinion, considerable danger in applying the methods of exact science to problems in descriptive science, whether they be problems of heredity or of political economy; the grace and logical accuracy of the mathematical processes are apt to so fascinate the descriptive scientist that he seeks for sociological hypotheses which fit his mathematical reasoning and this without first ascertaining whether the basis of his hypotheses is as broad as that human life to which the theory is to be applied.” cit. in. Stigler, Stephen M.: The History of Statistics. Harvard University Press, 1990 p. 304