14.0640 black-box vs glass-box methods

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Sun Feb 04 2001 - 05:40:42 EST

  • Next message: by way of Willard McCarty: "14.0641 e-bouncer vs e-dictator"

                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 640.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: "Chris McMahon" <pharmakeus@hotmail.com> (12)
             Subject: Re: 14.0638 black-box vs glass-box methods?

       [2] From: "David L. Hoover" <david.hoover@nyu.edu> (56)
             Subject: Re: 14.0638 black-box vs glass-box methods?

             Date: Sun, 04 Feb 2001 10:38:23 +0000
             From: "Chris McMahon" <pharmakeus@hotmail.com>
             Subject: Re: 14.0638 black-box vs glass-box methods?

    Dear WM,

    I think, if we are to wax philosophical, that the back box cannot be
    avoided. There is always an element of black box at work, because the world
    is not transparent. Black box is associated, for e.g. with BF Skinner,
    under stimulus x we get behavior y, but don't know exactly what's going on
    inside the rat that makes it exhibit behhavior y under stimulus x. Though
    neurology is peeling back the brain, same could be said re: any human
    behavior insofar as the "mind" is concerned. In any case, Kant's claim that
    all knowledge is founded on the unknown or the the Beingquestion of
    Heidegger represent encounters with the black box of existence itself.

    :) Chris

    Get Your Private, Free E-mail from MSN Hotmail at http://www.hotmail.com.

             Date: Sun, 04 Feb 2001 10:38:52 +0000
             From: "David L. Hoover" <david.hoover@nyu.edu>
             Subject: Re: 14.0638 black-box vs glass-box methods?

    You raise an interesting and complex question here--one that I am of several
    different minds about.

    First, I have never been fond of the black box idea, perhaps because of
    Chomsky's rather perverse use of it. So far as I know, there is never a unique
    solution to such a problem, in any case (one possible answer is always that
    there is a genie in the box).

    Second, I wonder if the analogy accurately fits the scenario you describe.
    Sophisticated statistical methods are not very much like a black box. SOMEONE
    knows how they work, even if this particular researcher doesn't. One could use
    the computer itself in the same analogy: how many humanities computing people
    could explain in detail the internal workings of the computer? (And why should
    anyone expect them to?) It seems to me that a better analogy for the
    statistical techniques here would be the oscilloscope, a tool that a physicist
    uses (a physicist who might very well not be able to explain exactly how the
    tool works), not a black box to be investigated. If anything is analogous to
    the black box, perhaps it is the text itself.

    Third, this leads me to your later question: whether we should call the
    production of highly significant results using a technique/tool that the
    researcher doesn't fully understand "humanities computing." I can see that from
    a discipline-building point of view this is an important question, but to
    require the detailed understanding of the tool in order to earn the label of
    "humanities computing" seems to push the disciplinary question in an extreme
    direction. After all, the statistical technique is not the object of study
    here--the text is. The use of the computer is not an end, but a means. To
    require that the researcher become a theorist of humanities computing in order
    to be considered to be doing humanities computing seems to me (to analogize
    further) rather like requiring that all scientists be historians of science.

    "Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty )" wrote:

    > In physics, as I recall, the term "black box" refers to a device or process
    > whose internals cannot be known directly. You can measure the inputs and
    > outputs but cannot see what is inside.
    > (1) In the investigation of a complex matter in a large text, a researcher
    > applies various sophisticated statistical methods to the text ... that
    > ...highly significant results.... Nevertheless, the researcher in question
    > does not understand how these methods work in any detail nor can he or she
    > justify the use of the particular methods used, rather than others
    > for the task. All
    > that he or she knows is that they work, i.e. yield interesting results.
    > ... how should we regard the researchers' use of these black-box
    > methods? Are they by principles of good scholarship obliged to determine
    > how their black boxes work? Could we say that in our domain use of the
    > black box is fine as a way of getting inspired but that we shouldn't call
    > the practice humanities computing unless the research goes on to pry into
    > the box? If we are obliged to understand, then at what level? As in the
    > definition of primitives, can we say that past a certain point we do not
    > have to know, but before it we do? Thus, I might argue, since sorting a
    > list of words is a primitive, I don't need to be able to follow the code
    > that does the sort. I can, however, imagine someone saying that I should be
    > able to understand the logic of the process.

    David L. Hoover, Associate Chair & Webmaster, NYU Eng. Dept. 212-998-8832
                david.hoover@nyu.edu      http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/english/

    "Adolph slid back into the thicket and lay down behind a fallen log to see what would happen. Not much ever happened to him but weather." Willa Cather

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Sun Feb 04 2001 - 05:44:25 EST