What counts as evidence in the humanities?

The following is a talk I delivered at the 5/2/2016 weekly seminar for the UW-Madison Institute for Research in the Humanities (IRH). Over the course of the 2015-2016 academic year, the question of what counts as evidence in the humanities became a sort of informal theme for the collected IRH fellows. Accordingly, IRH director Susan Friedman convened a panel of scholars from a wide variety of disciplinary homes to tackle the question. Since a significant portion of my research of late has moved in the direction of quantitative methodologies, I decided my remarks would directly tackle the possibility of quantitative humanistic evidence.

When it comes to the question of what counts as evidence in the humanities, today I ask, does counting count? Ironically, to answer this question, I begin with three short vignettes:

Vignette 1: When I found out I was going to have the opportunity to talk about what counts as evidence in the humanities, I posted the question to my various social media accounts to see if I could prevail upon my humanist friends and colleagues to offer some insights. Apparently, my friends are kind of (loveable) assholes¹, because I immediately got a flurry of sarcastic replies like:

n = 1
p < .95

What’s really funny about these is that they were sent to me by humanists. When presented with the question of what counts as evidence, the replies were, in part, self-deprecating, but ultimately a rejection of the question as worthy of a serious reply.

Vignette 2: When I was in grad school, I was taking a course in rhetorical theory and we were assigned to write a paper on vernacular rhetorics, that is ephemeral, everyday discourse as opposed to formal political speech. As a part of my paper, I did a little survey designed to help better understand how the rhetors involved understood their own rhetoric. I’ll never forget my professor’s response upon reading this paper:

This is really nice work. Can you take the numbers out?

Vignette 3: Many of you have no doubt heard the dismissive aphorism, “the plural of anecdote is not data,” which is most frequently attributed to Berkley political scientist Raymond Wolfinger. In the following passage from a personal email, Wolfinger writes about the origin of this particular line:

I said ‘The plural of anecdote is data’ some time in the 1969-70 academic year while teaching a graduate seminar at Stanford. The occasion was a student’s dismissal of a simple factual statement–by another student or me–as a mere anecdote. The quotation was my rejoinder. “

With these three vignettes as a guide, my question, “does counting count,” is partially transformed into the question, “what does it mean for counting to count or not count?”

For some humanists, like my old graduate school professor, counting clearly doesn’t count. For others like my Facebook friends, it’s a question of us vs them. It’s a matter of demarcation. Whether or not counting counts is a reification of CP Snow’s “Two Cultures.” It’s a specific effort, admittedly from both “sides”—if there are even sides—to say “what we do is qualitatively different from what you do.

The contemporary cultural capital of the sciences is buttressed significantly by their supposedly privileged access to truth, an access that is grounded in exact quantification. Indeed, scientists even quantify the exactness of their quantification, as was alluded to in my Facebook friends’ caustic dismissal of sample sizes and p-values.

Humanists frequently respond to this with some version of, “you’re not as smart as you think you are.” Scientific research is often dismissed by humanists who suggest that the quantitative approach belies a facile reductivist epistemology. “If only they understood depth, nuance, and complexity the way we do,” some humanists say.

But as the demarcation efforts between humanists and scientists continue, they grow ever more bizarre. What should we make of Wolfinger’s effort to correct the record, to remind everyone that that plural of anecdote is, indeed, data? His rejoinder supports the manifest factyness of non-quantitative data and thereby challenges the presumptive privilege of quantitative inquiry. In contrast, how do we understand postmodernists who say that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or Schrödinger’s cat proves the truth of relativist epistemology? In a bizarre reversal, “you’re not as smart as you think you are” becomes “you’re not as smart as you think you are because you quantitatively proved the truth of our arguments about the lack of truth.”

Ultimately, the complex boundaries between different regimes of inquiry are far too messy to say whether or not counting counts in the humanities. Because, in truth, counting both counts and does not count. The equations of quantum mechanics don’t count when used to prove the truth-value of high energy physics, but they do count when used to support epistemological relativity. So, what do we make of this?

I think a lesson from argumentation studies is instructive here. Stephen Toulmin famously defines an argument as the unification of a claim, evidence, and a warrant. (A warrant is a principle that authorizes the connection between the claim and the evidence, and beyond the scope of my comments today.) The important point here is about evidence. Evidence exists within an argument. Evidence is not evidence outside an argument. There is only stuff, information, interpretation, data, or phenomena. That stuff is transformed into evidence when, and only when, it is deployed in an argument.

Accordingly, I would argue that there is no a priori, metaphysical, or ontological quality of numbers that makes them count (or not count) as evidence in the humanities. Rather, it is how they are articulated into the ecology of humanistic argument that allows one to assess not whether they count, but when they count and when they do not count.

1. Not all of my friends chose snark as their reply. Many thanks to Lisa Meloncon who took the time to send me lengthy and insightful comments, including her excellent 2014 CDQ article that tackles the question directly. If this talk had taken less comical turn, her thoughts would have been more substantively included.