Transparency & Selectivity

In light of the issues concerning Time on the Cross and the marked lack of transparency constructed around the authors’ methodology, one aspect of data accessibility stuck with me as an articulation expanding on the qualifications we discussed in class. Bringing methodology to the foreground of historical writing, as described by Gibbs & Owens in the Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing, integrates the communication of processes with the findings. This serves to incorporate data and quantitative analysis with traditional uses of historical sources in a manner that assigns each a function appropriate to its scope, which the authors describe when they note that “as historical data becomes more ubiquitous, humanists will find it useful to pivot between distant and close readings”. Distant readings call for innovative methodologies and collaborations, as they also often serve as the mechanism for framing questions and directing attention to previously imperceptible patterns and trends, which can not be separated from the findings themselves. Gibbs & Owens also note that “historians need to treat data as text”, which seems to summarize the dichotomy between text and data though an analogy of a false separation. Both are treated similarly already: acquired, manipulated, analyzed and represented. This broader, more exploratory approach to data highlights also the fundamental difference from purely mathematical hypothesis testing, which ignores the subjectivity of historical information.

Fogel and Engerman certainly generated a fair amount of discourse through their own procedure, however, as Gibbs demonstrates through Owens’ own research, the type of additive commentary that occurs during a project where the methodology is laid bare allows researchers greater access to critique, commentary, expansion, and inspiration. Where the scope of and access to data is expanding, a greater weight is given to a researcher’s methodology than previously and the interaction is part of the interpretation. However, as Robert Darton describes in his article, access remains tied to money and power, and there is an ever shifting balance between private and public interests. As information is also treated as an asset, this valuation of data seems to guarantee conclusions warped to reflect the selectivity of available material. Darton references the Enlightenment thinkers to frame the disconnect between accessibility and privilege, where ideals fail to reflect reality. This seems to also be applicable to the discussion Gibbs & Owen initiate. Through their emphasis on transparent methodology, there might be a window for corrective forces for the bias of data filtered by private interests. Though Darton has faith in Google as a benign force, it may be that the vigilance he calls for is most appropriately generated when analyzing these works made denser through the additional scope of methodology, in whatever form that ends up taking.




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