11.0463 evidence

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 16 Dec 1997 09:07:00 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 463.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Sun, 14 Dec 1997 11:09:12 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: RE: Tank Driving Scholars


I was puzzled by your suggestion that humanities computing courses
include a component on how to deal with evidence. Evidence and reasoning
I assume to be staples of the humanistic enterprise and covered by the
very nature of academic instruction in that tradition. After re-reading
your post over the weekend, however, I decided that the term "evidence"
was ambiguous in this context and that at least one (of many)
definitions of evidence would support your call for instruction.

> Even if not, it seems to me that those of us fortunate enough to be
> teaching
> humanities computing require a component in our courses that teaches
> students how to deal with evidence. Not that this is uniquely a
> problem in
> computer-assisted applications, but it is brought to the fore by the
> evidence vending machine.

"Evidence" as it is presented to undergraduate as well as graduate
students does in some cases involve the use of primary source materials.
It is more often the case that students use scholarly summaries of
primary materials or diplomatic editions in the course of their
research. Even in those cases where students have access to original
source materials, it is a rather limited set of materials and not the
large textual databases mentioned in your post (TLG, Dartmouth Dante
Database). "Evidence" consisting primarily of prior scholarly opinion
and possibly some original source material is addressed by current
academic instruction.

"Evidence" in the sense of the output of large textual databases as
opposed to prior scholarly opinion offers different challenges to
scholars. In addition to normal inquires such as the accuracy of the
information contained in the database, more technical issues such as how
the material was encoded, does the encoding scheme bias the results of
certain queries, how representative is the material contained in the
database, must be answered as well. In this sense of "evidence" I think
your call for further work is well founded.

> Northrop Frye used to say that with enough prose one could link any
> statement with any other statement. With enough evidence at hand, I'm
> thinking, one can get away with less specious reasoning by substituting a
> few footnotes fat with references to this or that database.

Specious reasoning did not await the development of textual databases to
make its appearance in humanities scholarship. To the extent that such
databases are widely available and in some cases publicly accessible
(Dartmouth Dante Database) the checking of cited evidence becomes
easier. Certainly far easier than checking the citations of primary
materials where access to those materials is restricted due to
geographic location or for other reasons. Evaluation of evidence and
reasoning remain the task of scholarship even if the drudgery (and
uncertainty) of obtaining access to primary materials is reduced.


Patrick Durusau
Information Technology Services
Scholars Press
Co-Chair, SBL Seminar on Electronic Standards for Biblical Language

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