Epistemological Pluralism

Recently, someone in The Humanist referenced the notion of epistemological pluralism: “Epistemological pluralism is a term used in philosophy, economics, and virtually any field of study to refer to different ways of knowing things, different epistemological methodologies for attaining a full description of a particular field.” (Wikipedia)

As I repeatedly tell people who want to dismiss quantitative or mathematical approaches to humanistic subjects/objects of study: it’s not that I am leaving traditional methods/approaches behind, it’s that I am acquiring additional methods/approaches. Biologists can both love a particular fern as well as study all ferns, all plants and understand a fern as representative of that larger class of objects/phenomena. I want the same thing for the things I study.

Quantitative PLUS Qualitative

I am looking to build a better, more readily understood argument for why `qualitative + quantitative` is better than simply qualitative. Too many humanists react too quickly to the idea of computational/digital/algorithmic approaches to humanistic topics as simply wrong.

On the other side of the equation are information/computer scientists/enthusiasts/pundits who imagine that quantitative analyses will eventually subsume everything. [Zeynep Tufekci has a terrific reflection][zt] on how [538 got the outcome of the Germany-Brazil World Cup match so wrong][538]. (As in they claimed that the stats favored Brazil.) In it she notes that:

> Instead of the aggressive pundit-versus-data stance taken by some big data proponents, it’s important to recognize that substantive area experts are often pretty good at recognizing measurement errors. … If the substantive experts are deemed unreliable, another option is “qualitative pull-outs” of your data to check for measurement error. Watch a game with, say, three experts, and count the uncalled fouls and specious, undeserved, penalty shots as judged by the experts. This can even be quantified as an index of measurement error based on qualitative examination (which will have its own measurement error because it’s turtles all the way down, folks—but intercoder reliability, technical way of saying “how much we all agree” can give a sense of scale of error.)

[zt]: https://medium.com/message/learning-from-natesilver538s-omg-wrong-bra-vs-ger-prediction-9d47fa0611e
[538]: http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/world-cup-semifinal-crib-notes-brazil-vs-germany/

What’s Really Hard

Grantland has the story of the life and times of [Anthony Gotta][], who is, according to the author, the greatest juggler alive. But he’s not juggling anymore. Why? Because, in juggling, a lot of the hard tricks don’t look particularly hard, and a lot of the tricks that look hard are, in reality, easy. And so, unlike in some arenas, like some sports, the difference between a successful performer and an unsuccessful one isn’t necessarily ability to do the work, but the ability to convince an audience, usually an unknowing audience, that you are doing work. (I feel for Gotta here. I work at a place where making it look like you’re working is rewarded over doing real work. Heck, my university is practically dedicated to building the facade of looking like it’s a working university.)

The story is worth the read, but this observation by one of the sources the author draws upon really stood out:

> “It’s hard to imagine how much precision is required for something like seven clubs,” says Lewbel, the economics professor and juggling author. “Literally the difference in angle of your hand of a fraction of a degree is enough to completely destroy it. If you sat down with a computer and plotted out how accurate the trajectories have to be, you wouldn’t believe anybody could ever do it.”

That seems like a pretty good description of a lot of topics on which humanists work.

[Anthony Gotta]: http://grantland.com/features/anthony-gatto-juggling-cirque-du-soleil-jason-fagone/