Historians have a tough job, give them a little slack

Having come from a liberal arts/social science education (B.A. in Anthropology), I’m probably more sympathetic to certain types of research than most of my “hard” science peers with Physics and Engineering backgrounds. But lo, those sympathies only run so deep.

I thought about this recently as I attended a seminar ( NICO seminar ) where an English Professor presented arguments about the rise of “networks” as a dominant linguistic and scientific paradigm of our time. He made some good arguments, so much so that I’d go as far as to say that I’m on board with his primary results: a) the word “network” is ubiquitous both in the sciences and lay-publications/movies/tv-shows and b) it’s rise was probably precipitated by a host of historical contingencies including the expansion of the internet, mathematical and technical advances in network sciences, etc.

I suppose the social scientist in me comes out when I even get on board with why this type of research is necessary and what it can mean: the way we talk and terminology we use affects the way we view the world. Before we thought about systems as networks, we were likely blinded and unable to make certain conceptual advances. Likewise, the ubiquity of “networks” is sure to fall, and our current way of thinking of anything and everything as a network is inevitably blinding us to some conceptual advances on topics where a “network” probably isn’t the right way to think about things. Since the late 90s, networks have become a hammer, Nature and Science have mass-produced it and scientists and writers across the world are using that hammer on every problem they can find.

Yet, when I find myself agreeing with an argument like this, I can’t help but cringe after a little bit of self-reflection. Could a one-hour talk be just as convincingly made explaining why “vitalism” is the dominant paradigm of our time? Or at very least, explain all of the historical contingencies that lead to vitalism being the dominant paradigm of our day, whether we accept that it currently is or isn’t?

Perhaps a more culturally relevant example will help: the news is currently flooded with stories about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. And would you believe it that two people boarded the plane with stolen passports! The pilot has tangential links to the opposition party of Malaysia! He might even have deleted parts of his flight simulator records! In the sciences, the significance of any finding relies on how our results stand up against random expectation. So if I make the argument that humans dominate the world because we have over 22,000 genes, you should probably ask how many genes other organisms have. And although 22,000 is a big and exciting number, I assure you, it’s not particularly high or low. Given this extra knowledge, my argument should cease any and all relevance.

So for me (and dare I say that it should stand for everyone), any argument that might explain a possible terrorist hijacking isn’t sufficient to stop there. It needs to stand out from the crowd of arguments that could be made against literally any random plane flying in the skies. If we could see the types of links and interconnections that could be dug up on the latest flight from Des Moines to Dallas, and a thousand or so others, maybe the details about Flight 370 would be surprising. Maybe they wouldn’t.

So how do we evaluate whether the argument for the rise of “networks” is logically sound? Is there a better argument about why “networks” are more prevalent than “vitalism”? If not, what does that baseline randomness say about whether we can ever uncover truth in a system as complicated as how a word/paradigm rose to prevalence? With historical events, there isn’t going to be a number or even a collection of numbers sitting on multi-dimensional axes that explain why “network” has reached it’s current cultural pre-eminence. No variable will predict the Holocaust. Or the Arab Spring. The only “axis” I have in my brain is the “convincingness of argument” axis, and for topics that I’m not an expert in, I have little choice but to rely on my trust in the speaker/writer to assure me that their argument stands out from the crowd (lest I spend countless hours evaluating 1000 arguments on every topic that I read about).

This all sounds a bit fatalist, but clearly someone needs to study these complicated topics. As consumers of media, we just need to remember to take these arguments with a heaping dump truck full of salt. And don’t take my word for it, go read some other opinions to see if I’ve really convinced you.