22.459 the longue durée

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jan 20 10:26:01 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 459.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 19 Jan 2009 14:02:16 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: counsel to patience

In his survey of quantitative approaches to the social sciences (within 
which he includes history), W. G. Runciman takes up various charges 
levelled against the quantifiers. Among them is the great amount of 
apparently unprofitable ingenuity put into numerical manipulations of 
historical and social data. What, he asks in his role as devil's 
advocate, have any of the ingenious quantifiers managed to contribute 
that begins to rival older methods of research? The answer is -- or was 
when he wrote in 1971 -- not much. He in his role as himself answers:

> No doubt the rewards of ingenuity, even if coupled with perseverance,
> are often meagre. They may indeed be particularly meagre in the
> traditionally less exact sciences. But this may mean that in due
> course the opportunities for spectacular advance will be all the
> greater. Every branch of science has had its false starts, its
> deluded hopes and its naively mis-applied techniques.... it
> remains true that habits of mind usually take a generation to be
> overturned: wasteful techniques, unfruitful hypotheses and
> misconceived presuppositions are apt to fade out only with the deaths
> of their protagonists. We may have to wait two or three hundred years
> before we know what are the most rewarding applications of
> quantitative methods to the sciences of man, and meanwhile it is
> irrelevant if not positively unhelpful to carp at lack of immediate
> success.

W. G. Runciman, "Thinking by numbers 1: on the use of statistics in 
sociology, their virtues and their limitations". Times Literary 
Supplement, 6 August 1971, pp. 943-4.

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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