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Humanist Archives: April 8, 2020, 2:38 p.m. Humanist 33.742 - Big Data and Truth

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 742.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
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        Date: 2020-04-07 07:45:45+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: Big Data unexamined

Yesterday Humanist published an announcement of a conference on
methodology specifically directed to examination of how social data is
collected and handled (33.735). I was struck by the statement that,

> While the body of literature using digital and social media data
> is growing at a staggering rate, accompanying methodological contributions
> about the process of conducting research with digital and social media data
> remains thin.

I expect that we're all familiar with the claim, expressed or implied,
that with Big Data we can finally leave guesswork behind and see what is
really going on. A variant of this is the claim that unadorned,
undistorted truth arises from the mathematical (i.e. statistical)
analysis of such data; e.g. that we can finally see how wrong we've been
about some literary phenomenon because we've not until now had all of it
at our command. Ok, I am exaggerating beyond, I suspect, what any
careful scholar, data scientist or machine-learning expert would say, or
say in public. Nevertheless, the notion of objectivity achieved through
Big Data is about in the world and needs some light shown on it, yes? 

I am reminded of arguments openly made some decades ago that simply
providing all existing versions of a text in digital form with tools to
manipulate them would eliminate the need for textual editors. No one now
would say any such thing, but we do get carried away -- and carried away
from the really hard (and exciting) work. Yesterday, in the same batch
of postings as the one about that conference, Ken Friedman quoted his
doctoral professor Dorothy Harris:

> "Be true to your sources and your sources will be true to you."

'To be true to' ... How much that demands of us! If anything, use of
digital tools makes that an even greater challenge.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist (www.dhhumanist.org)

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