[Humanist] 27.989 Against Method

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Apr 23 07:40:22 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 989.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 22 Apr 2014 15:57:01 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: against method

Many here will know and will have read Paul Feyerabend's hugely influential
book of 1975, Against Method, which argued against the long-ruling notion
that the sciences derived their power from a single method (thus *the*
Scientific Method*, a now long-discredited phrase one still comes across on
occasion). The attack was long overdue but made considerably more urgent by
the rise of computing, which had in many disciplines given new and
additional strength to the notion of a single method by which problems of
many kinds could be tackled. For example in the field of operations research
(in which, for example, Herbert Simon was prominent), enthusiasts believed
that computing offered a superior way of handling all manner of problems,
better than those with long experience of a pre-computational kind could
provide. Consider, if you will, the following paragraph from the first
recognized textbook in operations research, Philip M. Morse and George E.
Kimball's Methods of Operations Research (New York: Wiley & MIT Press, 1st
edn revised, 1951), 10a:

> It should be apparent by now that the operations research worker does
> not need to be a specialist in any particular branch of science. He
> does, however, need to be a person with considerable experience in
> research of a scientific nature.... The important requisite is that
> impersonal curiosity concerning new subjects that is the very essence
> of research ability. The research scientist is trained to reject
> unsupported statements and has come to have the habit of desiring to
> rest his decisions on some quantitative basis, even if the basis is
> only a rough estimate.

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, who quotes this passage in "Simulating the
Unthinkable: Gaming Future War in the 1950s and 1960s", Social Studies
of Science 30.2 (2000), comments,

> It was thought that scepticism and impatience with tradition combined
> with methodological discipline offered a superior perspective.

The OR folk had a point, esp in arguing against seasoned military officers
about how to conduct a nuclear war, for which simulations were the
only reasonable alternative. But still it is easy to see the arrogance,
or enthusiasm if you will, of the proponents of OR, newly energized as
these people were by (then) powerful mainframe computers and the
newly empowered practice of simulation. Theory and a machine seemed
to them to trump history and experience.

We are (not yet) in such a position of strength as OR was, but
perhaps the example is of some value to us when contemplating the
limits of context-free method.



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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