Attending part of UNL’s Digital Humanities Forum last Friday, a rather simple concept struck me as deeply important. As scholars, how certain are we of our conclusions? What percentage? Using a specific measurement, can we express our certainty?
In a sense, historical arguments are mostly circumstantial. Historians use sources to describe societies, ideas, and events, but complete reconstruction or replication is impossible. Instead, we build a case for our arguments with our supporting evidence to convince our audience, that’s why there are so many large monographs with extensive citations.
Fields in which replication of experiments is possible seem to write less. My limited interaction with social scientists for example suggests a big difference in the main form of scholarly publication: books and some articles for historians and articles and maybe some books for other fields. At the core, we are doing much of the same work. Collecting data to build an argument about some experience. Historians rely on examples from large collections of sources instead of running experiments though. While most social scientists will quantify their results through statistics, most historians utilize more qualitative methods.
Certainly, historians must not abandon narrative. In fact, historical scholarship needs more narrative in its history if anything. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a quantifiable measure of certainty supporting an argument? Quantitative history was fashionable for a short period of time, but using complex statistics correctly and writing a rich narrative are difficult enough to do on their own, let alone together.
Though a more quantitative argument could prove alienating to those unfamiliar with statistics, I think it would actually provide scholars with an easier way to engage the public and distinguish their work from less historically rigorous popular history books and wild claims by historians. Obviously, these are preliminary thoughts (with no supporting statistics), but the question of certainty is one in which historians must not take as assumed.