19.531 (critical) thinking and button-pushing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 29 Dec 2005 08:21:46 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 531.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 29 Dec 2005 08:05:43 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: (critical) thinking and button pushing

In Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of
Memory (Princeton, 1995), Ian Hacking takes a close look at the
process by which often unquestioning practices of measurement have
legitimated multiple personality and turned it into an object of
knowledge. Speaking of our modern tools, he observes that,

>We have long had a multitude of highly sophisticated statistical
>procedures. We now have many statistical software packages. Their
>power is incredible, but the pioneers of statistical inference would
>have mixed feelings, for they always insisted that people think
>before using a routine. In the old days routines took endless hours
>to apply, so one had to spend a lot of time thinking in order to
>justify using a routine. Now one enters data and presses a button.
>One result is that people seem to be cowed into not asking silly
>questions, such as: What hypothesis are you testing? What
>distribution is it that you say is not normal? What population are
>you talking about? Where did this base rate come from? Most
>important of all: Whose judgments do you use to calibrate scores on
>your questionnaires? Are those judgments generally agreed to by the
>qualified experts in the entire community? (p. 111)

In building our marvellous tools, do we not run a similar risk in
proportion to their complexity? In cases where fundamental
intellectual decisions have been made at root level, then in effect
hidden away by higher-level processes, this would seem clearly the
case. Thus I recall an historian once remarking that she never used
databases constructed by other people because she had found too many
critical decisions had been made below the level of manipulation. She
may have been wrong in particular instances not to have trusted good
work, but it seems to me that her point is well taken. What do we do
to answer it?

Hacking is, however, talking more about the power of distraction than
the effects of concealment or the consequences of effective
inaccessibility. It is perhaps for his reason that some of us, with
tongue not entirely in cheek, have praised the user-hostile
interface: at least a person must think before reaching for that
mouse. Again, what can we do to answer his point, made at the
interface of user and computational artifact?



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Thu Dec 29 2005 - 03:45:34 EST

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