[Milton-L] RE: Culturomics? Genome?

Thomas H. Luxon Thomas.H.Luxon at dartmouth.edu
Fri Dec 17 15:46:21 EST 2010

On Dec 17, 2010, at 7:54 PM, Jameela Lares wrote:

> I suppose one rejoinder would be to study the report of the scientists to see if they used any word at all that was not in a standard dictionary.


I am studying their report right now.  They report, for example, that the word "aridification" appears in no standard dictionary.  It is true that it does not appear in the OED, but of course "aridify" does. These scientists apparently do not understand how dictionaries work; they depend on a user's knowledge of roots and nominalizations. BTW, "aridification" does have a wikipedia article devoted to it.

The scientists listed for this article include no linguists, no literary scholars and no socio-linguists. These people are making claims about their ability to answer questions and problems in linguistics, cultural criticism, history and literary studies without showing a shred of evidence that they know anything, or have read anything, in these fields.  The arrogance is astonishing, might I even say admirably astonishing. I have an appreciation of ups-manship, though I find it has no scholarly value.

They claim to have invented a whole new mode of cultural analysis—culturomics:

<blockquote>Culturomics is the application of high-throughput data
collection and analysis to the study of human culture. Books
are a beginning, but we must also incorporate newspapers
(29), manuscripts (30), maps (31), artwork (32), and a myriad
of other human creations (33, 34). Of course, many voices –
already lost to time – lie forever beyond our reach.
Culturomic results are a new type of evidence in the
humanities. As with fossils of ancient creatures, the challenge
of culturomics lies in the interpretation of this evidence.</blockquote> (page 5 of Jen-Baptist Miche et al, "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books")

But they have done this without doing any homework into existing modes of cultural or linguistic analysis. They appear to have assumed that was not necessary, because that work has not been done in what they call a "scientific" (i.e. quantitative) manner.  They are wrong to assume that, arrogantly wrong.

Jean-Baptiste Michel, the lead author, is a post-doc in Psychology at Harvard (http://www-test.iq.harvard.edu/people/jean_baptiste_michel). He is part of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard.

This work has been described by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg as "arrogant" and "almost embarrassingly crude."  I would remove the "almost" and agree. It is also opportunistically irresponsible, in a word, bad science.

Thomas H. Luxon
Dartmouth College

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