tl;dr Academics’ individual policing of disciplinary boundaries at the expense of intellectual merit does a disservice to our global research community, which is already structured to reinforce disciplinarity at every stage. We should work harder to encourage research misfits to offset this structural pull.
The academic game is stacked to reinforce old community practices. PhDs aren’t only about specialization, but about teaching you to think, act, write, and cite like the discipline you’ll soon join. Tenure is about proving to your peers you are like them. Publishing and winning grants are as much about goodness of fit as about quality of work.
This isn’t bad. One of science’s most important features is that it’s often cumulative or at least agglomerative, that scientists don’t start from scratch with every new project, but build on each other’s work to construct an edifice that often resembles progress. The scientific pipeline uses PhDs, tenure, journals, and grants as built-in funnels, ensuring everyone is squeezed snugly inside the pipes at every stage of their career. It’s a clever institutional trick to keep science cumulative.
But the funnels work too well. Or at least, there’s no equally entrenched clever institutional mechanism for building new pipes, for allowing the development of new academic communities that break the mold. Publishing in established journals that enforce their community boundaries is necessary for your career; most of the world’s scholarly grant programs are earmarked for and evaluated by specific academic communities. It’s easy to be disciplinary, and hard to be a misfit.
To be sure, this is a known problem. Patches abound. Universities set aside funds for “interdisciplinary research” or “underfunded areas”; postdoc positions, centers, and antidsciplinary journals exist to encourage exactly the sort of weird research I’m claiming has no little place in today’s university. These solutions are insufficient.
University or even external grant programs fostering “interdisciplinarity” for its own sake become mostly useless because of the laws of Goodhart & Campbell. They’re usually designed to bring disciplines together rather than to sidestep disciplinarity altogether, which while admirable, is a system that’s pretty easy to game, and often leads to awkward alliances of convenience.
Universities do a bit better in encouraging certain types of centers that, rather than being “interdisciplinary”, are focused on a specific goal, method, or topic that doesn’t align easily with the local department structure. A new pipe, to extend my earlier bad metaphor. The problems arise here because centers often lack the institutional benefits available to departments: they rely on soft money, don’t get kickback from grant overheads, don’t get money from cross-listed courses, and don’t get tenure lines. Antidisciplinary postdoc positions suffer a similar fate, allowing misfits to thrive for a year or so before having to go back on the job market to rinse & repeat.
In short, the overwhelming inertial force of academic institutions pulls towards disciplinarity despite frequent but half-assed or poorly-supported attempts to remedy the situation. Even when new disciplinary configurations break free of institutional inertia, presenting themselves as means to knowledge every bit as legitimate as traditional departments (chemistry, history, sociology, etc.), it can take decades for them to even be given the chance to fail.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the community which taught us about autopoiesis proved incapable of sustaining itself, though half a century on its influences are glaringly apparent and far-reaching across today’s research universities. I wonder if we reconfigured the organization of colleges and departments from scratch today, whether there would be more departments of environmental studies and fewer departments of [redacted] 1.
I bring this all up to raise awareness of the difficulty facing good work with no discernible home, and to advocate for some individual action which, though it won’t change the system overnight, will hopefully make the world a bit easier for those who deserve it.
It is this: relax the reflexive disciplinary boundary drawing, and foster programs or communities which celebrate misfits.I wrote a bit about this last year in the context of history and culturomics; historians clamored to show that culturomics was bad history, but culturomics never attempted to be good history—it attempted to be good culturomics. Though I’d argue it often failed at that as well, it should have been evaluated by its own criteria, not the criteria of some related but different discipline.
Some potential ways to move forward:
If you are reviewing for a journal or grant and the piece is great, but doesn’t quite fit, and you can’t think of a better home for it, push against the editor to let it in anyway.
If you’re a journal editor or grant program officer, be more flexible with submissions which don’t fit your mold but don’t have easy homes elsewhere.
If you control funds for research grants, earmark half your money for good work that lacks a home. Not “good work that lacks a home but still looks like the humanities”, or “good work that looks like economics but happens to involve a computer scientist and a biologist”, but truly homeless work. I realize this won’t happen, but if I’m advocating, I might as well advocate big!
If you are training graduate students, hiring faculty, or evaluating tenure cases, relax the boundary-drawing urge to say “her work is fascinating, but it’s not exactly our department.”
If you have administrative and financial power at a university, commit to supporting nondisciplinary centers and agendas with the creation of tenure lines, the allocation of course & indirect funds, and some of the security offered to departments.
Ultimately, we need clever systems to foster nondisciplinary thinking which are as robust as those systems that foster cumulative research. This problem is above my paygrade. In the meantime, though, we can at least avoid the urge to equate disciplinary fitness with intellectual quality.
You didn’t seriously expect me to name names, did you? ↩
The below is the transcript from my October 29 keynote presented to the Creativity and The City 1600-2000 conference in Amsterdam, titled “Punched-Card Humanities”. I survey historical approaches to quantitative history, how they relate to the nomothetic/idiographic divide, and discuss some lessons we can learn from past successes and failures. For ≈200 relevant references, see this Zotero folder.
I’m here to talk about Digital History, and what we can learn from its quantitative antecedents. If yesterday’s keynote was framing our mutual interest in the creative city, I hope mine will help frame our discussions around the bottom half of the poster; the eHumanities perspective.
Specifically, I’ve been delighted to see at this conference, we have a rich interplay between familiar historiographic and cultural approaches, and digital or eHumanities methods, all being brought to bear on the creative city. I want to take a moment to talk about where these two approaches meet.
Yesterday’s wonderful keynote brought up the complicated goal of using new digital methods to explore the creative city, without reducing the city to reductive indices. Are we living up to that goal? I hope a historical take on this question might help us move in this direction, that by learning from those historiographic moments when formal methods failed, we can do better this time.
Digital History is different, we’re told. “New”. Many of us know historians who used computers in the 1960s, for things like demography or cliometrics, but what we do today is a different beast.
Commenting on these early punched-card historians, in 1999, Ed Ayers wrote, quote, “the first computer revolution largely failed.” The failure, Ayers, claimed, was in part due to their statistical machinery not being up to the task of representing the nuances of human experience.
We see this rhetoric of newness or novelty crop up all the time. It cropped up a lot in pioneering digital history essays by Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen in the 90s and 2000s, and we even see a touch of it, though tempered, in this conference’s theme.
In yesterday’s final discussion on uncertainty, Dorit Raines reminded us the difference between quantitative history in the 70s and today’s Digital History is that today’s approaches broaden our sources, whereas early approaches narrowed them.
To say “we’re at a unique historical moment” is something common to pretty much everyone, everywhere, forever. And it’s always a little bit true, right?
It’s true that every historical moment is unique. Unprecedented. Digital History, with its unique combination of public humanities, media-rich interests, sophisticated machinery, and quantitative approaches, is pretty novel.
But as the saying goes, history never repeats itself, but it rhymes. Each thread making up Digital History has a long past, and a lot of the arguments for or against it have been made many times before. Novelty is a convenient illusion that helps us get funding.
Not coincidentally, it’s this tension I’ll highlight today: between revolution and evolution, between breaks and continuities, and between the historians who care more about what makes a moment unique, and those who care more about what connects humanity together.
To be clear, I’m operating on two levels here: the narrative and the metanarrative. The narrative is that the history of digital history is one of continuities and fractures; the metanarrative is that this very tension between uniqueness and self-similarity is what swings the pendulum between quantitative and qualitative historians.
Now, my claim that debates over continuity and discontinuity are a primary driver of the quantitative/qualitative divide comes a bit out of left field — I know — so let me back up a few hundred years and explain.
Francis Bacon wrote that knowledge would be better understood if it were collected into orderly tables. His plea extended, of course, to historical knowledge, and inspired renewed interest in a genre already over a thousand years old: tabular chronology.
These chronologies were world histories, aligning the pasts of several regions which each reconned the passage of time differently.
Isaac Newton inherited this tradition, and dabbled throughout his life in establishing a more accurate universal chronology, aligning Biblical history with Greek legends and Egyptian pharoahs.
Newton brought to history the same mind he brought to everything else: one of stars and calculations. Like his peers, Newton relied on historical accounts of astronomical observations to align simultaneous events across thousands of miles. Kepler and Scaliger, among others, also partook in this “scientific history”.
Where Newton departed from his contemporaries, however, was in his use of statistics for sorting out history. In the late 1500s, the average or arithmetic mean was popularized by astronomers as a way of smoothing out noisy measurements. Newton co-opted this method to help him estimate the length of royal reigns, and thus the ages of various dynasties and kingdoms.
On average, Newton figured, a king’s reign lasted 18-20 years. If the history books record 5 kings, that means the dynasty lasted between 90 and 100 years.
Newton was among the first to apply averages to fill in chronologies, though not the first to apply them to human activities. By the late 1600s, demographic statistics of contemporary life — of births, burials and the like — were becoming common. They were ways of revealing divinely ordered regularities.
Incidentally, this is an early example of our illustrious tradition of uncritically appropriating methods from the natural sciences. See? We’ve all done it, even Newton!
Joking aside, this is an important point: statistical averages represented divine regularities. Human statistics began as a means to uncover universal truths, and they continue to be employed in that manner. More on that later, though.
Newton’s method didn’t quite pass muster, and skepticism grew rapidly on the whole prospect of mathematical history.
Criticizing Newton in 1782, for example, Samuel Musgrave argued, in part, that there are no discernible universal laws of history operating in parallel to the universal laws of nature. Nature can be mathematized; people cannot.
Not everyone agreed. Francesco Algarotti passionately argued that Newton’s calculation of average reigns, the application of math to history, was one of his greatest achievements. Even Voltaire tried Newton’s method, aligning a Chinese chronology with Western dates using average length of reigns.
Which brings us to the earlier continuity/discontinuity point: quantitative history stirs debate in part because it draws together two activities Immanuel Kant sets in opposition: the tendency to generalize, and the tendency to specify.
The tendency to generalize, later dubbed Nomothetic, often describes the sciences: extrapolating general laws from individual observations. Examples include the laws of gravity, the theory of evolution by natural selection, and so forth.
The tendency to specify, later dubbed Idiographic, describes, mostly, the humanities: understanding specific, contingent events in their own context and with awareness of subjective experiences. This could manifest as a microhistory of one parish in the French Revolution, a critical reading of Frankenstein focused on gender dynamics, and so forth.
These two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, and they frequently come in contact around scholarship of the past. Paleontologists, for example, apply general laws of biology and geology to tell the specific story of prehistoric life on Earth. Astronomers, similarly, combine natural laws and specific observations to trace to origins of our universe.
Historians have, with cyclically recurring intensity, engaged in similar efforts. One recent nomothetic example is that of cliodynamics: the practitioners use data and simulations to discern generalities such as why nations fail or what causes war. Recent idiographic historians associate more with the cultural and theoretical turns in historiography, often focusing on microhistories or the subjective experiences of historical actors.
Both tend to meet around quantitative history, but the conversation began well before the urge to quantify. They often fruitfully align and improve one another when working in concert; for example when the historian cites a common historical pattern in order to highlight and contextualize an event which deviates from it.
But more often, nomothetic and idiographic historians find themselves at odds. Newton extrapolated “laws” for the length of kings, and was criticized for thinking mathematics had any place in the domain of the uniquely human. Newton’s contemporaries used human statistics to argue for divine regularities, and this was eventually criticized as encroaching on human agency, free will, and the uniqueness of subjective experience.
I’ll highlight some moments in this debate, focusing on English-speaking historians, and will conclude with what we today might learn from foibles of the quantitative historians who came before.
Let me reiterate, though, that quantitative is not nomothetic history, but they invite each other, so I shouldn’t be ahistorical by dividing them.
Take Henry Buckle, who in 1857 tried to bridge the two-culture divide posed by C.P. Snow a century later. He wanted to use statistics to find general laws of human progress, and apply those generalizations to the histories of specific nations.
Buckle was well-aware of historiography’s place between nomothetic and idiographic cultures, writing: “it is the business of the historian to mediate between these two parties, and reconcile their hostile pretensions by showing the point at which their respective studies ought to coalesce.”
In direct response, James Froud wrote that there can be no science of history. The whole idea of Science and History being related was nonsensical, like talking about the colour of sound. They simply do not connect.
This was a small exchange in a much larger Victorian debate pitting narrative history against a growing interest in scientific history. The latter rose on the coattails of growing popular interest in science, much like our debates today align with broader discussions around data science, computation, and the visible economic successes of startup culture.
This is, by the way, contemporaneous with something yesterday’s keynote highlighted: the 19th century drive to establish ‘urban laws’.
By now, we begin seeing historians leveraging public trust in scientific methods as a means for political control and pushing agendas. This happens in concert with the rise of punched cards and, eventually, computational history. Perhaps the best example of this historical moment comes from the American Census in the late 19th century.
Briefly, a group of 19th century American historians, journalists, and census chiefs used statistics, historical atlases, and the machinery of the census bureau to publicly argue for the disintegration of the U.S. Western Frontier in the late 19th century.
These moves were, in part, made to consolidate power in the American West and wrestle control from the native populations who still lived there. They accomplished this, in part, by publishing popular atlases showing that the western frontier was so fractured that it was difficult to maintain and defend. 1
The argument, it turns out, was pretty compelling.
Part of what drove the statistical power and scientific legitimacy of these arguments was the new method, in 1890, of entering census data on punched cards and processing them in tabulating machines. The mechanism itself was wildly successful, and the inventor’s company wound up merging with a few others to become IBM. As was true of punched-card humanities projects through the time of Father Roberto Busa, this work was largely driven by women.
It’s worth pausing to remember that the history of punch card computing is also a history of the consolidation of government power. Seeing like a computer was, for decades, seeing like a state. And how we see influences what we see, what we care about, how we think.
Recall the Ed Ayers quote I mentioned at the beginning of his talk. He said the statistical machinery of early quantitative historians could not represent the nuance of historical experience. That doesn’t just mean the math they used; it means the actual machinery involved.
See, one of the truly groundbreaking punch card technologies at the turn of the century was the card sorter. Each card could represent a person, or household, or whatever else, which is sort of legible one-at-a-time, but unmanageable in giant stacks.
Now, this is still well before “computers”, but machines were being developed which could sort these cards into one of twelve pockets based on which holes were punched. So, for example, if you had cards punched for people’s age, you could sort the stacks into 10 different pockets to break them up by age groups: 0-9, 10-19, 20-29, and so forth.
This turned out to be amazing for eyeball estimates. If your 20-29 pocket was twice as full as your 10-19 pocket after all the cards were sorted, you had a pretty good idea of the age distribution.
Over the next 50 years, this convenience would shape the social sciences. Consider demographics or marketing. Both developed in the shadow of punch cards, and both relied heavily on what’s called “segmentation”, the breaking of society into discrete categories based on easily punched attributes. Age ranges, racial background, etc. These would be used to, among other things, determine who was interested in what products.
They’d eventually use statistics on these segments to inform marketing strategies.
But, if you look at the statistical tests that already existed at the time, these segmentations weren’t always the best way to break up the data. For example, age flows smoothly between 0 and 100; you could easily contrive a statistical test to show that, as a person ages, she’s more likely to buy one product over another, over a set of smooth functions.
That’s not how it worked though. Age was, and often still is, chunked up into ten or so distinct ranges, and those segments were each analyzed individually, as though they were as distinct from one another as dogs and cats. That is, 0-9 is as related to 10-19 as it is to 80-89.
What we see here is the deep influence of technological affordances on scholarly practice, and it’s an issue we still face today, though in different form.
As historians began using punch cards and social statistics, they inherited, or appropriated, a structure developed for bureaucratic government processing, and were rightly soon criticized for its dehumanizing qualities.
Unsurprisingly, given this backdrop, historians in the first few decades of the 20th century often shied away from or rejected quantification.
The next wave of quantitative historians, who reached their height in the 1930s, approached the problem with more subtlety than the previous generations in the 1890s and 1860s.
Charles Beard’s famous Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States used economic and demographic stats to argue that the US Constitution was economically motivated. Beard, however, did grasp the fundamental idiographic critique of quantitative history, claiming that history was, quote:
“beyond the reach of mathematics — which cannot assign meaningful values to the imponderables, immeasurables, and contingencies of history.”
The other frequent critique of quantitative history, still heard, is that it uncritically appropriates methods from stats and the sciences.
This also wasn’t entirely true. The slide behind me shows famed statistician Karl Pearson’s attempt to replicate the math of Isaac Newton that we saw earlier using more sophisticated techniques.
By the 1940s, Americans with graduate training in statistics like Ernest Rubin were actively engaging historians in their own journals, discussing how to carefully apply statistics to historical research.
On the other side of the channel, the French Annales historians were advocating longue durée history; a move away from biographies to prosopographies, from events to structures. In its own way, this was another historiography teetering on the edge between the nomothetic and idiographic, an approach that sought to uncover the rhymes of history.
Interest in quantitative approaches surged again in the late 1950s, led by a new wave of Annales historians like Fernand Braudel and American quantitative manifestos like those by Benson, Conrad, and Meyer.
William Aydolette went so far as to point out that all historians implicitly quantify, when they use words like “many”, “average”, “representative”, or “growing” – and the question wasn’t can there be quantitative history, but when should formal quantitative methods be utilized?
By 1968, George Murphy, seeing the swell of interest, asked a very familiar question: why now? He asked why the 1960s were different from the 1860s or 1930s, why were they, in that historical moment, able to finally do it right? His answer was that it wasn’t just the new technologies, the huge datasets, the innovative methods: it was the zeitgeist. The 1960s was the right era for computational history, because it was the era of computation.
By the early 70s, there was a historian using a computer in every major history department. Quantitative history had finally grown into itself.
Of course, in retrospect, Murphy was wrong. Once the pendulum swung too far towards scientific history, theoretical objections began pushing it the other way.
In Poverty of Historicism, Popper rejected scientific history, but mostly as a means to reject historicism outright. Popper’s arguments represent an attack from outside the historiographic tradition, but one that eventually had significant purchase even among historians, as an indication of the failure of nomothetic approaches to culture. It is, to an extent, a return to Musgrave’s critique of Isaac Newton.
At the same time, we see growing criticism from historians themselves. Arthur Schlesinger famously wrote that “important questions are important precisely because they are not susceptible to quantitative answers.”
There was a converging consensus among English-speaking historians, as in the early 20th century, that quantification erased the essence of the humanities, that it smoothed over the very inequalities and historical contingencies we needed to highlight.
Jacques Barzun summed it up well, if scathingly, saying history ought to free us from the bonds of the machine, not feed us into it.
The skeptics prevailed, and the pendulum swung the other way. The post-structural, cultural, and literary-critical turns in historiography pivoted away from quantification and computation. The final nail was probably Fogel and Engerman’s 1974 Time on the Cross, which reduced the Atlantic slave-trade to economic figures, and didn’t exactly treat the subject with nuance and care.
The cliometricians, demographers, and quantitative historians didn’t disappear after the cultural turn, but their numbers shrunk, and they tended to find themselves in social science departments, or fled here to Europe, where social and economic historians were faring better.
Which brings us, 40 years on, to the middle of a new wave of quantitative or “formal method” history. Ed Ayers, like George Murphy before him, wrote, essentially, this time it’s different.
And he’s right, to a point. Many here today draw their roots not to the cliometricians, but to the very cultural historians who rejected quantification in the first place. Ours is a digital history steeped in the the values of the cultural turn, that respects social justice and seeks to use our approaches to shine a light on the underrepresented and the historically contingent.
But that doesn’t stop a new wave of critiques that, if not repeating old arguments, certainly rhymes. Take Johanna Drucker’s recent call to rebrand data as capta, because when we treat observations objectively as if it were the same as the phenomena observed, we collapse the critical distance between the world and our interpretation of it. And interpretation, Drucker contends, is the foundation on which humanistic knowledge is based.
Which is all to say, every swing of the pendulum between idiographic and nomothetic history was situated in its own historical moment. It’s not a clock’s pendulum, but Foucault’s pendulum, with each swing’s apex ending up slightly off from the last. The issues of chronology and astronomy are different from those of eugenics and manifest destiny, which are themselves different from the capitalist and dehumanizing tendencies of 1950s mainframes.
But they all rhyme. Quantitative history has failed many times, for many reasons, but there are a few threads that bind them which we can learn from — or, at least, a few recurring mistakes we can recognize in ourselves and try to avoid going forward.
We won’t, I suspect, stop the pendulum’s inevitable about-face, but at least we can continue our work with caution, respect, and care.
The lesson I’d like to highlight may be summed up in one question, asked by Humpty Dumpty to Alice: which is to be master?
Over several hundred years of quantitative history, the advice of proponents and critics alike tends to align with this question. Indeed in 1956, R.G. Collingwood wrote specifically “statistical research is for the historian a good servant but a bad master,” referring to the fact that statistical historical patterns mean nothing without historical context.
Schlesinger, the guy who I mentioned earlier who said historical questions are interesting precisely because they can’t be quantified, later acknowledged that while quantitative methods can be useful, they’ll lead historians astray. Instead of tackling good questions, he said, historians will tackle easily quantifiable ones — and Schlesinger was uncomfortable by the tail wagging the dog.
I’ve found many ways in which historians have accidentally given over agency to their methods and machines over the years, but these five, I think, are the most relevant to our current moment.
Unfortunately since we running out of time, you’ll just have to trust me that these are historically recurring.
Number 1 is the uncareful appropriation of statistical methods for historical uses. It controls us precisely because it offers us a black box whose output we don’t truly understand.
A common example I see these days is in network visualizations. People visualize nodes and edges using what are called force-directed layouts in Gephi, but they don’t exactly understand what those layouts mean. As these layouts were designed, physical proximity of nodes are not meant to represent relatedness, yet I’ve seen historians interpret two neighboring nodes as being related because of their visual adjacency.
This is bad. It’s false. But because we don’t quite understand what’s happening, we get lured by the black box into nonsensical interpretations.
The second way methods drive us is in our reliance on methodological imports. That is, we take the time to open the black box, but we only use methods that we learn from statisticians or scientists. Even when we fully understand the methods we import, if we’re bound to other people’s analytic machinery, we’re bound to their questions and biases.
Take the example I mentioned earlier, with demographic segmentation, punch card sorters, and its influence on social scientific statistics. The very mechanical affordances of early computers influence the sort of questions people asked for decades: how do discrete groups of people react to the world in different ways, and how do they compare with one another?
The next thing to watch out for is naive scientism. Even if you know the assumptions of your methods, and you develop your own techniques for the problem at hand, you still can fall into the positivist trap that Johanna Drucker warns us about — collapsing the distance between what we observe and some underlying “truth”.
This is especially difficult when we’re dealing with “big data”. Once you’re working with so much material you couldn’t hope to read it all, it’s easy to be lured into forgetting the distance between operationalizations and what you actually intend to measure.
For instance, if I’m finding friendships in Early Modern Europe by looking for particular words being written in correspondences, I will completely miss the existence of friends who were neighbors, and thus had no reason to write letters for us to eventually read.
A fourth way we can be mislead by quantitative methods is the ease with which they lend an air of false precision or false certainty.
This is the problem Matthew Lincoln and the other panelists brought up yesterday, where missing or uncertain data, once quantified, falsely appears precise enough to make comparisons.
I see this mistake crop up in early and recent quantitative histories alike; we measure, say, the changing rate of transnational shipments over time, and notice a positive trend. The problem is the positive difference is quite small, easily attributable to error, but because numbers are always precise, it still feels like we’re being more precise than doing a qualitative assessment. Even when it’s unwarranted.
The last thing to watch out for, and maybe the most worrisome, is the blinders quantitative analysis places on historians who don’t engage in other historiographic methods. This has been the downfall of many waves of quantitative history in the past; the inability to care about or even see that which can’t be counted.
This was, in part, was what led Time on the Cross to become the excuse to drive historians from cliometrics. The indicators of slavery that were measurable were sufficient to show it to have some semblance of economic success for black populations; but it was precisely those aspects of slavery they could not measure that were the most historically important.
So how do we regain mastery in light of these obstacles?
1. Uncareful Appropriation – Collaboration
Regarding the uncareful appropriation of methods, we can easily sidestep the issue of accidentally misusing a method by collaborating with someone who knows how the method works. This may require a translator; statisticians can as easily misunderstand historical problems as historians can misunderstand statistics.
Historians and statisticians can fruitfully collaborate, though, if they have someone in the middle trained to some extent in both — even if they’re not themselves experts. For what it’s worth, Dutch institutions seem to be ahead of the game in this respect, which is something that should be fostered.
2. Reliance on Imports – Statistical Training
Getting away from reliance on disciplinary imports may take some more work, because we ourselves must learn the approaches well enough to augment them, or create our own. Right now in DH this is often handled by summer institutes and workshop series, but I’d argue those are not sufficient here. We need to make room in our curricula for actual methods courses, or even degrees focused on methodology, in the same fashion as social scientists, if we want to start a robust practice of developing appropriate tools for our own research.
3. Naive Scientism – Humanities History
The spectre of naive scientism, I think, is one we need to be careful of, but we are also already well-equipped to deal with it. If we want to combat the uncareful use of proxies in digital history, we need only to teach the history of the humanities; why the cultural turn happened, what’s gone wrong with positivistic approaches to history in the past, etc.
Incidentally, I think this is something digital historians already guard well against, but it’s still worth keeping in mind and making sure we teach it. Particularly, digital historians need to remain aware of parallel approaches from the past, rather than tracing their background only to the textual work of people like Roberto Busa in Italy.
False precision and false certainty have some shallow fixes, and some deep ones. In the short term, we need to be better about understanding things like confidence intervals and error bars, and use methods like what Matthew Lincoln highlighted yesterday.
In the long term, though, digital history would do well to adopt triangulation strategies to help mitigate against these issues. That means trying to reach the same conclusion using multiple different methods in parallel, and seeing if they all agree. If they do, you can be more certain your results are something you can trust, and not just an accident of the method you happened to use.
5. Quantitative Blinders – Rejecting Digital History
Avoiding quantitative blinders – that is, the tendency to only care about what’s easily countable – is an easy fix, but I’m afraid to say it, because it might put me out of a job. We can’t call what we do digital history, or quantitative history, or cliometrics, or whatever else. We are, simply, historians.
Some of us use more quantitative methods, and some don’t, but if we’re not ultimately contributing to the same body of work, both sides will do themselves a disservice by not bringing every approach to bear in the wide range of interests historians ought to pursue.
Qualitative and idiographic historians will be stuck unable to deal with the deluge of material that can paint us a broader picture of history, and quantitative or nomothetic historians will lose sight of the very human irregularities that make history worth studying in the first place. We must work together.
If we don’t come together, we’re destined to remain punched-card humanists – that is, we will always be constrained and led by our methods, not by history.
Of course, this divide is a false one. There are no purely quantitative or purely qualitative studies; close-reading historians will continue to say things like “representative” or “increasing”, and digital historians won’t start publishing graphs with no interpretation.
Still, silos exist, and some of us have trouble leaving the comfort of our digital humanities conferences or our “traditional” history conferences.
That’s why this conference, I think, is so refreshing. It offers a great mix of both worlds, and I’m privileged and thankful to have been able to attend. While there are a lot of lessons we can still learn from those before us, from my vantage point, I think we’re on the right track, and I look forward to seeing more of those fruitful combinations over the course of today.
This account is influenced from some talks by Ben Schmidt. Any mistakes are from my own faulty memory, and not from his careful arguments. ↩
If you claim computational approaches to history (“digital history”) lets historians ask new types of questions, or that they offer new historical approaches to answering or exploring old questions, you are wrong. You’re not actually wrong, but you are institutionally wrong, which is maybe worse.
This is a problem, because rhetoric from practitioners (including me) is that we can bring some “new” to the table, and when we don’t, we’re called out for not doing so. The exchange might (but probably won’t) go like this:
Digital Historian: And this graph explains how velociraptors were of utmost importance to Victorian sensibilities.
Historian in Audience: But how is this telling us anything we haven’t already heard before? Didn’t John Hammond already make the same claim?
DH: That’s true, he did. One thing the graph shows, though, is that velicoraptors in general tend to play much more unimportant roles across hundreds of years, which lends support to the Victorian thesis.
HiA: Yes, but the generalized argument doesn’t account for cultural differences across those times, so doesn’t meaningfully contribute to this (or any other) historical conversation.
History (like any discipline) is made of people, and those people have Ideas about what does or doesn’t count as history (well, historiography, but that’s a long word so let’s ignore it). If you ask a new type of question or use a new approach, that new thing probably doesn’t fit historians’ Ideas about proper history.
The age of peak celebrity has been consistent over time: about 75 years after birth. But the other parameters have been changing. Fame comes sooner and rises faster. Between the early 19th century and the mid-20th century, the age of initial celebrity declined from 43 to 29 years, and the doubling time fell from 8.1 to 3.3 years.
Historians saw those claims and asked “so what”? It’s not interesting or relevant according to the things historians usually consider interesting or relevant, and it’s problematic in ways historians find things problematic. For example, it ignores cultural differences, does not speak to actual human experiences, and has nothing of use to say about a particular historical moment.
It’s true. Culturomics-style questions do not fit well within a humanities paradigm (incommensurable, anyone?). By the standard measuring stick of what makes a good history project, culturomics does not measure up. A new type of question requires a new measuring stick; in this case, I think a good one for culturomics-style approaches is the extent to which they bridge individual experiences with large-scale social phenomena, or how well they are able to reconcile statistical social regularities with free or contingent choice.
The point, though, is a culturomics presentation would fit few of the boxes expected at a history conference, and so would be considered a failure. Rightly so, too—it’s a bad history presentation. But what culturomics is successfully doing is asking new types of questions, whether or not historians find them legitimate or interesting. Is it good culturomics?
To put too fine a point on it, since history is often a question-driven discipline, new types of questions that are too different from previous types are no longer legitimately within the discipline of history, even if they are intrinsically about human history and do not fit in any other discipline.
What’s more, new types of questions may appear simplistic by historian’s standards, because they fail at fulfilling even the most basic criteria usually measuring historical worth. It’s worth keeping in mind that, to most of the rest of the world, our historical work often fails at meeting their criteria for worth.
New approaches to old questions share a similar fate, but for different reasons. That is, if they are novel, they are not interesting, and if they are interesting, they are not novel.
Traditional historical questions are, let’s face it, not particularly new. Tautologically. Some old questions in my field are: what role did now-silent voices play in constructing knowledge-making instruments in 17th century astronomy? How did scholarship become institutionalized in the 18th century? Why was Isaac Newton so annoying?
My own research is an attempt to provide a broader view of those topics (at least, the first two) using computational means. Since my topical interest has a rich tradition among historians, it’s unlikely any of my historically-focused claims (for example, that scholarly institutions were built to replace the really complicated and precarious role people played in coordinating social networks) will be without precedent.
After decades, or even centuries, of historical work in this area, there will always be examples of historians already having made my claims. My contribution is the bolstering of a particular viewpoint, the expansion of its applicability, the reframing of a discussion. Ultimately, maybe, I convince the world that certain social network conditions play an important role in allowing scholarly activity to be much more successful at its intended goals. My contribution is not, however, a claim that is wholly without precedent.
But this is a problem, since DH rhetoric, even by practitioners, can understandably lead people to expect such novelty. Historians in particular are very good at fitting old patterns to new evidence. It’s what we’re trained to do.
Any historical claim (to an acceptable question within the historical paradigm) can easily be countered with “but we already knew that”. Either the question’s been around long enough that every plausible claim has been covered, or the new evidence or theory is similar enough to something pre-existing that it can be taken as precedent.
The most masterful recent discussion of this topic was Matthew Lincoln’s Confabulation in the humanities, where he shows how easy it is to make up evidence and get historians to agree that they already knew it was true.
To put too fine a point on it, new approaches to old historical questions are destined to produce results which conform to old approaches; or if they don’t, it’s easy enough to stretch the old & new theories together until they fit. New approaches to old questions will fail at producing completely surprising results; this is a bad standard for historical projects.If a novel methodology were to create truly unrecognizable results, it is unlikely those results would be recognized as “good history” within the current paradigm. That is, historians would struggle to care.
What Is This Beast?
What is this beast we call digital history? Boundary-drawing is a tried-and-true tradition in the humanities, digital or otherwise. It’s theoretically kind of stupid but practically incredibly important, since funding decisions, tenure cases, and similar career-altering forces are at play. If digital history is a type of history, it’s fundable as such, tenurable as such; if it isn’t, it ain’t. What’s more, if what culturomics researchers are doing are also history, their already-well-funded machine can start taking slices of the sad NEH pie.
So “what counts?” is unfortunately important to answer.
This discussion around what is “legitimate history research” is really important, but I’d like to table it for now, because it’s so often conflated with the discussion of what is “legitimate research” sans history. The former question easily overshadows the latter, since academics are mostly just schlubs trying to make a living.
For the last century or so, history and philosophy of science have been smooshed together in departments and conferences. It’s caused a lot of concern. Does history of science need philosophy of science? Does philosophy of science need history of science? What does it mean to combine the two? Is what comes out of the middle even useful?
Weirdly, the question sometimes comes down to “does history and philosophy of science even exist?”. It’s weird because people identify with that combined title, so I published a citation analysis in Erkenntnis a few years back that basically showed that, indeed, there is an area between the two communities, and indeed those people describe themselves as doing HPS, whatever that means to them.
I bring this up because digital history, as many of us practice it, leaves us floating somewhere between public engagement, social science, and history. Culturomics occupies a similar interstitial space, though inching closer to social physics and complex systems.
From this vantage point, we have a couple of options. We can say digital history is just history from a slightly different angle, and try to be evaluated by standard historical measuring sticks—which would make our work easily criticized as not particularly novel. Or we can say digital history is something new, occupying that in-between space—which could render the work unrecognizable to our usual communities.
The either/or proposition is, of course, ludicrous. The best work being done now skirts the line, offering something just novel enough to be surprising, but not so out of traditional historical bounds as to be grouped with culturomics. But I think we need to more deliberate and organized in this practice, lest we want to be like History and Philosophy of Science, still dealing with basic questions of legitimacy fifty years down the line.
In the short term, this probably means trying not just to avoid the rhetoric of newness, but to actively curtail it. In the long term, it may mean allying with like-minded historians, social scientists, statistical physicists, and complexity scientists to build a new framework of legitimacy that recognizes the forms of knowledge we produce which don’t always align with historiographic standards. As Cassidy Sugimoto and I recently wrote, this often comes with journals, societies, and disciplinary realignment.
The least we can do is steer away from a novelty rhetoric, since what is novel often isn’t history, and what is history often isn’t novel.
Here’s a way of thinking that might get us past this muddle (and I think I agree with the authors that the hype around DH is a mistake): let’s stop branding our scholarship. We don’t need Next Big Things and we don’t need Academic Superstars, whether they are DH Superstars or Theory Superstars. What we do need is to find more democratic and inclusive ways of thinking about the value of scholarship and scholarly communities.
This is relevant here, and good, but tough to reconcile with the earlier post. In an ideal world, without disciplinary brandings, we can all try to be welcoming of works on their own merits, without relying our preconceived disciplinary criteria. In the present condition, though, it’s tough to see such an environment forming. In that context, maybe a unified digital history “brand” is the best way to stay afloat. This would build barriers against whatever new thing comes along next, though, so it’s a tough question.
tl;dr Rich-get-richer academic prestige in a scarce job market makes meritocracy impossible. Why some things get popular and others don’t. Also agent-based simulations.
Slightly longer tl;dr This post is about why academia isn’t a meritocracy, at no intentional fault of those in power who try to make it one. None of presented ideas are novel on their own, but I do intend this as a novel conceptual contribution in its connection of disparate threads. Especially, I suggest the predictability of research success in a scarce academic economy as a theoretical framework for exploring successes and failures in the history of science.
But mostly I just beat a “musical chairs” metaphor to death.
To the victor go the spoils, and to the spoiled go the victories. Think about it: the Yankees; Alexander the Great; Stanford University. Why do the Yankees have twice as many World Series appearances as their nearest competitors, how was Alex’s empire so fucking vast, and why does Stanford get all the cool grants?
The rich get richer. Enough World Series victories, and the Yankees get the reputation and funding to entice the best players. Ol’ Allie-G inherited an amazing army, was taught by Aristotle, and pretty much every place he conquered increased his military’s numbers. Stanford’s known for amazing tech innovation, so they get the funding, which means they can afford even more innovation, which means even more people think they’re worthy of funding, and so on down the line until Stanford and its neighbors (Google, Apple, etc.) destroy the local real estate market and then accidentally blow up the world.
Okay, maybe I exaggerated that last bit.
Point is, power begets power. Scientists call this a positive feedback loop: when a thing’s size is exactly what makes it grow larger.
You’ve heard it firsthand when a microphoned singer walks too close to her speaker. First the mic picks up what’s already coming out of the speaker. The mic, doings its job, sends what it hears to an amplifier, sending an even louder version to the very same speaker. The speaker replays a louder version of what it just produced, which is once again received by the microphone, until sound feeds back onto itself enough times to produce the ear-shattering squeal fans of live music have come to dread. This is a positive feedback loop.
Positive feedback loops are everywhere. They’re why the universe counts logarithmically rather than linearly, or why income inequality is so common in free market economies. Left to their own devices, the rich tend to get richer, since it’s easier to make money when you’ve already got some.
Science and academia are equally susceptible to positive feedback loops. Top scientists, the most well-funded research institutes, and world-famous research all got to where they are, in part, because of something called the Matthew Effect.
For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath. —Matthew 25:29, King James Bible.
It’s the Biblical idea that the rich get richer, and it’s become a popular party trick among sociologists (yes, sociologists go to parties) describing how society works. In academia, the phrase is brought up alongside evidence that shows previous grant-recipients are more likely to receive new grants than their peers, and the more money a researcher has been awarded, the more they’re likely to get going forward.
The Matthew Effect is also employed metaphorically, when it comes to citations. He who gets some citations will accrue more; she who has the most citations will accrue them exponentially faster. There are many correct explanations, but the simplest one will do here:
If Susan’s article on the danger of velociraptors is cited by 15 other articles, I am more likely to find it and cite her than another article on velociraptors containing the same information, that has never been cited. That’s because when I’m reading research, I look at who’s being cited. The more Susan is cited, the more likely I’ll eventually come across her article and cite it myself, which in turn increases the likelihood that much more that someone else will find her article through my own citations. Continue ad nauseam.
Some of you are thinking this is stupid. Maybe it’s trivially correct, but missing the bigger picture: quality. What if Susan’s velociraptor research is simply better than the competing research, and that’s why it’s getting cited more?
Yes, that’s also an issue. Noticeably awful research simply won’t get much traction. 1 Let’s disqualify it from the citation game. The point is there is lots of great research out there, waiting to be read and built upon, and its quality isn’t the sole predictor of its eventual citation success.
In fact, quality is a mostly-necessary but completely insufficient indicator of research success. Superstar popularity of research depends much more on the citation effects I mentioned above – more citations begets even more. Previous success is the best predictor of future success, mostly independent of the quality of research being shared.
This is all pretty hand-wavy. How do we know success is more important than quality in predicting success? Uh, basically because of Napster.
If VH1 were to produce a retrospective on the first decade of the 21st century, perhaps its two biggest subjects would be illegal music sharing and VH1’s I Love the 19xx… TV series. Napster came and went, followed by LimeWire, eDonkey2000, AudioGalaxy, and other services sued by Metallica. Well-known early internet memes like Hamster Dance and All Your Base Are Belong To Us spread through the web like socially transmitted diseases, and researchers found this the perfect opportunity to explore how popularity worked. Experimentally.
In 2006, a group of Columbia University social scientists designed a clever experiment to test why some songs became popular and others did not, relying on the public interest in online music sharing. They created a music downloading site which gathered 14,341 users, each one to become a participant in their social experiment.
The cleverness arose out of their experimental design, which allowed them to get past the pesky problem of history only ever happening once. It’s usually hard to learn why something became popular, because you don’t know what aspects of its popularity were simply random chance, and what aspects were genuine quality. If you could, say, just rerun the 1960s, changing a few small aspects here or there, would the Beatles still have been as successful? We can’t know, because the 1960s are pretty much stuck having happened as they did, and there’s not much we can do to change it. 2
But this music-sharing site could rerun history—or at least, it could run a few histories simultaneously. When they signed up, each of the site’s 14,341 users were randomly sorted into different groups, and their group number determined how they were presented music. The musical variety was intentionally obscure, so users wouldn’t have heard the bands before.
A user from the first group, upon logging in, would be shown songs in random order, and were given the option to listen to a song, rate it 1-5, and download it. Users from group #2, instead, were shown the songs ranked in order of their popularity among other members of group #2. Group #3 users were shown a similar rank-order of popular songs, but this time determined by the song’s popularity within group #3. So too for groups #4-#9. Every user could listen to, rate, and download music.
Essentially, the researchers put the participants into 9 different self-contained petri dishes, and waited to see which music would become most popular in each. Ranking and download popularity from group #1 was their control group, in that members judged music based on their quality without having access to social influence. Members of groups #2-#9 could be influenced by what music was popular with their peers within the group. The same songs circulated in each petri dish, and each petri dish presented its own version of history.
No superstar songs emerged out of the control group. Positive feedback loops weren’t built into the system, since popularity couldn’t beget more popularity if nobody saw what their peers were listening to. The other 8 musical petri dishes told a different story, however. Superstars emerged in each, but each group’s population of popular music was very different. A song’s popularity in each group was slightly related to its quality (as judged by ranking in the control group), but mostly it was social-influence-produced chaos. The authors put it this way:
In general, the “best” songs never do very badly, and the “worst” songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible. —Salganik, Dodds, & Watts, 2006
These results became even more pronounced when the researchers increased the visibility of social popularity in the system. The rich got even richer still. A lot of it has to do with timing. In each group, the first few good songs to become popular are the ones that eventually do the best, simply by an accident of circumstance. The first few popular songs appear at the top of the list, for others to see, so they in-turn become even more popular, and so ad infinitum. The authors go on:
experts fail to predict success not because they are incompetent judges or misinformed about the preferences of others, but because when individual decisions are subject to social influence, markets do not simply aggregate pre-existing individual preferences.
In short, quality is a necessary but insufficient criteria for ultimate success. Social influence, timing, randomness, and other non-qualitative features of music are what turn a good piece of music into an off-the-charts hit.
Wait what about science?
Compare this to what makes a “well-respected” scientist: it ain’t all citations and social popularity, but they play a huge role. And as I described above, simply out of exposure-fueled-propagation, the more citations someone accrues, the more citations they are likely to accrue, until we get a situation like the Yankees (40 world series appearances, versus 20 appearances by the Giants) on our hands. Superstars are born, who are miles beyond the majority of working researchers in terms of grants, awards, citations, etc. Social scientists call this preferential attachment.
Which is fine, I guess. Who cares if scientific popularity is so skewed as long as good research is happening? Even if we take the Columbia social music experiment at face-value, an exact analog for scientific success, we know that the most successful are always good scientists, and the least successful are always bad ones, so what does it matter if variability within the ranks of the successful is so detached from quality?
Except, as anyone studying their #OccupyWallstreet knows, it ain’t that simple in a scarce economy. When the rich get richer, that money’s gotta come from somewhere. Like everything else (cf. the law of conservation of mass), academia is a (mostly) zero-sum game, and to the victors go the spoils. To the losers? Meh.
So let’s talk scarcity.
The 41st Chair
The same guy who who introduced the concept of the Matthew Effect to scientific grants and citations, Robert K. Merton (…of Columbia University), also brought up “the 41st chair” in the same 1968 article.
Merton’s pretty great, so I’ll let him do the talking:
In science as in other institutional realms, a special problem in the workings of the reward system turns up when individuals or organizations take on the job of gauging and suitably rewarding lofty performance on behalf of a large community. Thus, that ultimate accolade in 20th-century science, the Nobel prize, is often assumed to mark off its recipients from all the other scientists of the time. Yet this assumption is at odds with the well-known fact that a good number of scientists who have not received the prize and will not receive it have contributed as much to the advancement of science as some of the recipients, or more.
This can be described as the phenomenon of “the 41st chair.” The derivation of this tag is clear enough. The French Academy, it will be remembered, decided early that only a cohort of 40 could qualify as members and so emerge as immortals. This limitation of numbers made inevitable, of course, the exclusion through the centuries of many talented individuals who have won their own immortality. The familiar list of occupants of this 41st chair includes Descartes, Pascal, Moliere, Bayle, Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Diderot, Stendahl, Flaubert, Zola, and Proust
But in greater part, the phenomenon of the 41st chair is an artifact of having a fixed number of places available at the summit of recognition. Moreover, when a particular generation is rich in achievements of a high order, it follows from the rule of fixed numbers that some men whose accomplishments rank as high as those actually given the award will be excluded from the honorific ranks. Indeed, their accomplishments sometimes far outrank those which, in a time of less creativity, proved
enough to qualify men for his high order of recognition.
The Nobel prize retains its luster because errors of the first kind—where scientific work of dubious or inferior worth has been mistakenly honored—are uncommonly few. Yet limitations of the second kind cannot be avoided. The small number of awards means that, particularly in times of great scientific advance, there will be many occupants of the 41st chair (and, since the terms governing the award of the prize do not provide for posthumous recognition, permanent occupants of that chair).
Basically, the French Academy allowed only 40 members (chairs) at a time. We can be reasonably certain those members were pretty great, but we can’t be sure that equally great—or greater—women existed who simply never got the opportunity to participate because none of the 40 members died in time.
These good-enough-to-be-members-but-weren’t were said to occupy the French Academy’s 41st chair, an inevitable outcome of a scarce economy (40 chairs) when the potential number benefactors of this economy far outnumber the goods available (40). The population occupying the 41st chair is huge, and growing, since the same number of chairs have existed since 1634, but the population of France has quadrupled in the intervening four centuries.
Returning to our question of “so what if rich-get-richer doesn’t stick the best people at the top, since at least we can assume the people at the top are all pretty good anyway?”, scarcity of chairs is the so-what.
Unfortunately, as the Columbia social music study (among many other studies) showed, true meritocracies are impossible in complex social systems. Anyone who plays the academic game knows this already, and many are quick to point it out when they see people in much better jobs doing incredibly stupid things. What those who point out the falsity of meritocracy often get wrong, however, is intention: the idea that there is no meritocracy because those in power talk the meritocracy talk, but don’t then walk the walk. I’ll talk a bit later about how, even if everyone is above board in trying to push the best people forward, occupants of the 41st chair will still often wind up being more deserving than those sitting in chairs 1-40. But more on that later.
For now, let’s start building a metaphor that we’ll eventually over-extend well beyond its usefulness. Remember that kids’ game Musical Chairs, where everyone’s dancing around a bunch of chairs while the music is playing, but as soon as the music stops everyone’s got to find a chair and sit down? The catch, of course, is that there are fewer chairs than people, so someone always loses when the music stops.
The academic meritocracy works a bit like this. It is meritocratic, to a point: you can’t even play the game without proving some worth. The price of admission is a Ph.D. (which, granted, is more an endurance test than an intelligence test, but academic success ain’t all smarts, y’know?), a research area at least a few people find interesting and believe you’d be able to do good work in it, etc. It’s a pretty low meritocratic bar, since it described 50,000 people who graduated in the U.S. in 2008 alone, but it’s a bar nonetheless. And it’s your competition in Academic Musical Chairs.
Academic Musical Chairs
Time to invent a game! It’s called Academic Musical Chairs, the game where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. It’s like Regular Musical Chairs, but more complicated (see Fig. 1). Also the game is fixed.
See those 40 chairs in the middle green zone? People sitting in them are the winners. Once they’re seated they have what we call in the game “tenure”, and they don’t get up until they die or write something controversial on twitter. Everyone bustling around them, the active players, are vying for seats while they wait for someone to die; they occupy the yellow zone we call “the 41st chair”. Those beyond that, in the red zone, can’t yet (or may never) afford the price of game admission; they don’t have a Ph.D., they already said something controversial on Twitter, etc. The unwashed masses, you know?
As the music plays, everyone in the 41st chair is walking around in a circle waiting for someone to die and the music to stop. When that happens, everyone rushes to the empty seat. A few invariably reach it simultaneously, until one out-muscles the others and sits down. The sitting winner gets tenure. The music starts again, and the line continues to orbit the circle.
If a player spends too long orbiting in the 41st chair, he is forced to resign. If a player runs out of money while orbiting, she is forced to resign. Other factors may force a player to resign, but they will never appear in the rulebook and will always be a surprise.
Now, some players are more talented than others, whether naturally or through intense training. The game calls this “academic merit”, but it translates here to increased speed and strength, which helps some players reach the empty chair when the music stops, even if they’re a bit further away. The strength certainly helps when competing with others who reach the chair at the same time.
A careful look at Figure 1 will reveal one other way players might increase their chances of success when the music stops. The 41st chair has certain internal shells, or rings, which act a bit like that fake model of an atom everyone learned in high-school chemistry. Players, of course, are the electrons.
You may remember that the further out the shell, the more electrons can occupy it(-ish): the first shell holds 2 electrons, the second holds 8; third holds 18; fourth holds 32; and so on. The same holds true for Academic Musical Chairs: the coveted interior ring only fits a handful of players; the second ring fits an order of magnitude more; the third ring an order of magnitude more than that, and so on.
Getting closer to the center isn’t easy, and it has very little to do with your “academic rigor”! Also, of course, the closer you are to the center, the easier it is to reach either the chair, or the next level (remember positive feedback loops?). Contrariwise, the further you are from the center, the less chance you have of ever reaching the core.
Many factors affect whether a player can proceed to the next ring while the music plays, and some factors actively count against a player. Old age and being a woman, for example, take away 1 point. Getting published or cited adds points, as does already being friends with someone sitting in a chair (the details of how many points each adds can be found in your rulebook). Obviously the closer you are to the center, the easier you can make friends with people in the green core, which will contribute to your score even further. Once your score is high enough, you proceed to the next-closest shell.
Hooray, someone died! Let’s watch what happens.
The music stops. The people in the innermost ring who have the luckiest timing (thus are closest to the empty chair) scramble for it, and a few even reach it. Some very well-timed players from the 2nd & 3rd shells also reach it, because their “academic merit” has lent them speed and strength to reach past their position. A struggle ensues. Miraculously, a pregnant black woman sits down (this almost never happens), though not without some bodily harm, and the music begins again.
Oh, and new shells keep getting tacked on as more players can afford the cost of admission to the yellow zone, though the green core remains the same size.
Bizarrely, this is far from the first game of this nature. A Spanish boardgame from 1587 called the Courtly Philosophyhad players move figures around a board, inching closer to living a luxurious life in the shadow of a rich patron. Random chance ruled their progression—a role of the dice—and occasionally they’d reach a tile that said things like: “Your patron dies, go back 5 squares”.
But I digress. Let’s temporarily table the scarcity/41st-chair discussion and get back to the Matthew Effect.
The View From Inside
A friend recently came to me, excited but nervous about how well they were being treated by their department at the expense of their fellow students. “Is this what the Matthew Effect feels like?” they asked. Their question is the reason I’m writing this post, because I spent the next 24 hours scratching my head over “what does the Matthew Effect feel like?”.
I don’t know if anyone’s looked at the psychological effects of the Matthew Effect (if you do, please comment?), but my guess is it encompasses two feelings: 1) impostor syndrome, and 2) hard work finally paying off.
Since almost anyone who reaps the benefits of the Matthew Effect in academia will be an intelligent, hard-working academic, a windfall of accruing success should feel like finally reaping the benefits one deserves. You probably realize that luck played a part, and that many of your harder-working, smarter friends have been equally unlucky, but there’s no doubt in your mind that, at least, your hard work is finally paying off and the academic community is beginning to recognize that fact. No matter how unfair it is that your great colleagues aren’t seeing the same success.
But here’s the thing. You know how in physics, gravity and acceleration feel equivalent? How, if you’re in a windowless box, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between being stationary on Earth, or being pulled by a spaceship at 9.8 m/s2 through deep space? Success from merit or from Matthew Effect probably acts similarly, such that it’s impossible to tell one from the other from the inside.
Incidentally, that’s why the last advice you ever want to take is someone telling you how to succeed from their own experience.
Since we’ve seen explosive success requires but doesn’t rely on skill, quality, or intent, the most successful people are not necessarily in the best position to understand the reason for their own rise. Their strategies may have paid off, but so did timing, social network effects, and positive feedback loops. The question you should be asking is, why didn’t other people with the same strategies also succeed?
Keep this especially in mind if you’re a student, and your tenured-professor advised you to seek an academic career. They may believe that giving you their strategies for success will help you succeed, when really they’re just giving you one of 50,000 admission tickets to Academic Musical Chairs.
Building a Meritocracy
I’m teetering well-past the edge of speculation here, but I assume the communities of entrenched academics encouraging undergraduates into a research career are the same communities assuming a meritocracy is at play, and are doing everything they can in hiring and tenure review to ensure a meritocratic playing field.
But even if gender bias did not exist, even if everyone responsible for decision-making genuinely wanted a meritocracy, even if the game weren’t rigged at many levels, the economy of scarcity (41st chair) combined with the Matthew Effect would ensure a true meritocracy would be impossible. There are only so many jobs, and hiring committees need to choose some selection criteria; those selection criteria will be subject to scarcity and rich-get-richer effects.
I won’t prove that point here, because original research is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I have a good idea of how to do it. In fact, after I finish writing this, I probably will go do just that. Instead, let me present very similar research, and explain how that method can be used to answer this question.
He answered this question using by simulating an artificial world—similar in spirit to the Columbia social music experiment, except for using real participants, he experimented on very simple rule-abiding game creatures of his own invention. A bit like having a computer play checkers against itself.
The experiment is simple enough: a bunch of creatures occupy a checker board, and like checker pieces, they’re red or black. Every turn, one creature has the opportunity to move randomly to another empty space on the board, and their decision to move is based on their comfort with their neighbors. Red pieces want red neighbors, and black pieces want black neighbors, and they keep moving randomly ’till they’re all comfortable. Unsurprisingly, segregated creature communities appear in short order.
What if we our checker-creatures were more relaxed in their comforts? They’d be comfortable as long as they were in the majority; say, at least 50% of their neighbors were the same color. Again, let the computer play itself for a while, and within a few cycles the checker board is once again almost completely segregated.
What if the checker pieces are excited about the prospect of a diverse neighborhood? We relax the criteria even more, so red checkers only move if fewer than a third of their neighbors are red (that is, they’re totally comfortable with 66% of their neighbors being black)? If we run the experiment again, we see, again, the checker board breaks up into segregated communities.
Schelling’s claim wasn’t about how the world worked, but about what the simplest conditions were that could still explain racism. In his fictional checkers-world, every piece could be generously interested in living in a diverse neighborhood, and yet the system still eventually resulted in segregation. This offered a powerful support for the theory that racism could operate subtly, even if every actor were well-intended.
Such an experiment can be devised for our 41st-chair/positive-feedback system as well. We can even build a simulation whose rules match the Academic Musical Chairs I described above. All we need to do is show that a system in which both effects operate (a fact empirically proven time and again in academia) produces fundamental challenges for meritocracy. Such a model would be show that simple meritocratic intent is insufficient to produce a meritocracy. Hulk smashing the myth of the meritocracy seems fun; I think I’ll get started soon.
The Social Network
Our world ain’t that simple. For one, as seen in Academic Musical Chairs, your place in the social network influences your chances of success. A heavy-hitting advisor, an old-boys cohort, etc., all improve your starting position when you begin the game.
To put it more operationally, let’s go back to the Columbia social music experiment. Part of a song’s success was due to quality, but the stuff that made stars was much more contingent on chance timing followed by positive feedback loops. Two of the authors from the 2006 study wrote another in 2007, echoing this claim that good timing was more important than individual influence:
models of information cascades, as well as human subjects experiments that have been designed to test the models (Anderson and Holt 1997; Kubler and Weizsacker 2004), are explicitly constructed such that there is nothing special about those individuals, either in terms of their personal characteristics or in their ability to influence others. Thus, whatever influence these individuals exert on the collective outcome is an accidental consequence of their randomly assigned position in the queue.
These articles are part of a large literature in predicting popularity, viral hits, success, and so forth. There’s The Pulse of News in Social Media: Forecasting Popularity by Bandari, Asur, & Huberman, which showed that a top predictor of newspaper shares was the source rather than the content of an article, and that a major chunk of articles that do get shared never really make it to viral status. There’s Can Cascades be Predicted?by Cheng, Adamic, Dow, Kleinberg, and Leskovec (all-star cast if ever I saw one), which shows the remarkable reliance on timing & first impressions in predicting success, and also the reliance on social connectivity. That is, success travels faster through those who are well-connected (shocking, right?), and structural properties of the social network are important. This study by Susarla et al. also shows the importance of location in the social network in helping push those positive feedback loops, effecting the magnitude of success in YouTube Video shares.
Now, I know, social media success does not an academic career predict. The point here, instead, is to show that in each of these cases, before sharing occurs and not taking into account social media effects (that is, relying solely on the merit of the thing itself), success is predictable, but stardom is not.
Relating it to Academic Musical Chairs, it’s not too difficult to say whether someone will end up in the 41st chair, but it’s impossible to tell whether they’ll end up in seats 1-40 until you keep an eye on how positive feedback loops are affecting their career.
In the academic world, there’s a fertile prediction market for Nobel Laureates. Social networks and Matthew Effect citation bursts are decent enough predictors, but what anyone who predicts any kind of success will tell you is that it’s much easier to predict the pool of recipients than it is to predict the winners.
Take Economics. How many working economists are there? Tens of thousands, at least. But there’s this Econometric Society which began naming Fellows in 1933, naming 877 Fellows by 2011. And guess what, 60 of 69 Nobel Laureates in Economics before 2011 were Fellows of the society. The other 817 members are or were occupants of the 41st chair.
The point is (again, sorry), academic meritocracy is a myth. Merit is a price of admission to the game, but not a predictor of success in a scarce economy of jobs and resources. Once you pass the basic merit threshold and enter the 41st chair, forces having little to do with intellectual curiosity and rigor guide eventual success (ahem). Small positive biases like gender, well-connected advisors, early citations, lucky timing, etc. feed back into increasingly larger positive biases down the line. And since there are only so many faculty jobs out there, these feedback effects create a naturally imbalanced playing field. Sometimes Einsteins do make it into the middle ring, and sometimes they stay patent clerks. Or adjuncts, I guess. Those who do make it past the 41st chair are poorly-suited to tell you why, because by and large they employed the same strategies as everybody else.
And if these six thousand words weren’t enough to convince you, I leave you with this article and this tweet. Have a nice day!
As a historian of science, this situation has some interesting repercussions for my research. Perhaps most importantly, it and related concepts from Complex Systems research offer a middle ground framework between environmental/contextual determinism (the world shapes us in fundamentally predictable ways) and individual historical agency (we possess the power to shape the world around us, making the world fundamentally unpredictable).
More concretely, it is historically fruitful to ask not simply what non-“scientific” strategies were employed by famous scientists to get ahead (see Biagioli’s Galileo, Courtier), but also what did or did not set those strategies apart from the masses of people we no longer remember. Galileo, Courtier provides a great example of what we historians can do on a larger scale: it traces Galileo’s machinations to wind up in the good graces of a wealthy patron, and how such a system affected his own research. Using recently-available data on early modern social and scholarly networks, as well as the beginnings of data on people’s activities, interests, practices, and productions, it should be possible to zoom out from Biagioli’s viewpoint and get a fairly sophisticated picture of trajectories and practices of people who weren’t Galileo.
This is all very preliminary, just publicly blogging whims, but I’d be fascinated by what a wide-angle (dare I say, macroscopic?) analysis of the 41st chair in could tell us about how social and “scientific” practices shaped one another in the 16th and 17th centuries. I believe this would bear previously-impossible fruit, since a lone historian grasping ten thousand tertiary actors at once is a fool’s errand, but is a walk in the park for my laptop.
As this really is whim-blogging, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Unless it’s really awful, but let’s avoid that discussion here. ↩
Earlier today, Heather Froehlich shared what’s at this point become a canonical illustration among Ph.D. students: “The Illustrated guide to a Ph.D.” The illustrator, Matt Might, describes the sum of human knowledge as a circle. As a child, you sit at the center of the circle, looking out in all directions.
Eventually, he describes, you get various layers of education, until by the end of your bachelor’s degree you’ve begun focusing on a specialty, focusing knowledge in one direction.
A master’s degree further deepens your focus, extending you toward an edge, and the process of pursuing a Ph.D., with all the requisite reading, brings you to a tiny portion of the boundary of human knowledge.
You push and push at the boundary until one day you finally poke through, pushing that tiny portion of the circle of knowledge just a wee bit further than it was. That act of pushing through is a Ph.D.
It’s an uplifting way of looking at the Ph.D. process, inspiring that dual feeling of insignificance and importance that staring at the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field tends to bring about. It also exemplifies, in my mind, one of the broken aspects of the modern Ph.D. But while we’re on the subject of the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, let me digress momentarily about stars.
Quite a while before you or I were born, Great Thinkers with Big Beards (I hear even the Great Women had them back then) also suggested we sat at the center of a giant circle, looking outwards. The entire universe, or in those days, the cosmos (Greek: κόσμος, “order”), was a series of perfect layered spheres, with us in the middle, and the stars embedded in the very top. The stars were either gems fixed to the last sphere, or they were little holes poked through it that let the light from heaven shine through.
As I see it, if we connect the celestial spheres theory to “The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.”, we’d arrive at the inescapable conclusion that every star in the sky is another dissertation, another hole poked letting the light of heaven shine through. And yeah, it takes a very prescriptive view of the knowledge and the universe that either you or I can argue with, but for this post we can let it slide because it’s beautiful, isn’t it? If you’re a Ph.D. student, don’t you want to be able to do this?
The problem is I don’t actually want to do this, and I imagine a lot of other people don’t want to do this, because there are already so many goddamn stars. Stars are nice. They’re pretty, how they twinkle up there in space, trillions of miles away from one another. That’s how being a Ph.D. student feels sometimes, too: there’s your research, my research, and a gap between us that can reach from Alpha Centauri and back again. Really, just astronomically far away.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. Right now a Ph.D. is about finding or doing something that’s new, in a really deep and narrow way. It’s about pricking the fabric of the spheres to make a new star. In the end, you’ll know more about less than anyone else in the world. But there’s something deeply unsettling about students being trained to ignore the forest for the trees. In an increasingly connected world, the universe of knowledge about it seems to be ever-fracturing. Very few are being trained to stand back a bit and try to find patterns in the stars. To draw constellations.
I should know. I’ve been trying to write a dissertation on something huge, and the advice I’ve gotten from almost every professor I’ve encountered is that I’ve got to scale it down. Focus more. I can’t come up with something new about everything, so I’ve got to do it about one thing, and do it well. And that’s good advice, I know! If a lot of people weren’t doing that a lot of the time, we’d all just be running around in circles and not doing cool things like going to the moon or watching animated pictures of cats on the internet.
But we also need to stand back and take stock, to connect things, and right now there are institutional barriers in place making that really difficult. My advisor, who stands back and connects things for a living (like the map of science below), gives me the same prudent advice as everyone else: focus more. It’s practical advice. For all that universities celebrate interdisciplinarity, in the end you still need to get hired by adepartment, and if you don’t fit neatly into their disciplinary niche, you’re not likely to make it. My request is simple. If you’re responsible for hiring researchers, or promoting them, or in charge of a department or (!) a university, make it easier to be interdisciplinary. Continue hiring people who make new stars, but also welcome the sort of people who want to connect them. There certainly are a lot of stars out there, and it’s getting harder and harder to see what they have in common, and to connect them to what we do every day. New things are great, but connecting old things in new ways is also great. Sometimes we need to think wider, not deeper.