vrijdag 18 oktober 2019

How Capitalist Thinking is Bullshitting Around in Academia

Introduction*

A myriad of newspaper articles, blogs, posts and social media threads exist on what is wrong with
'Academia' in Western Europe and the United States. In my home country of the Netherlands there is an entire organization of Academic Activists, trying to improve things for Academics. For now, nothing has been achieved and budget cuts continue to hit universities without delay.

In 2004, when I was still young and full of life, a PhD student at the start of my Academic career, I spoke to one of my 'professor-idols' from a Belgian University, hoping for an inspirational conversation. The first thing I asked him was what he was working on now. The sour answer was: 'administration' and that the only joy he still got from his job was through the research from his junior staff members. This professor was an early example of how capitalism at universities could beat out the passion of some of the brightest minds in their field.

Common complaints from academics are not enough funding, a high workload, monetizing of knowledge and bad peer reviewing. Most of these complaints are justified. In my opinion however, they often circumvent the real problem: Unchecked Capitalism in Academia, which is caused by a blind worshipping of Capitalist Thinking in Western Society. Universities have let this monster in and it still is growing. I will argue here that capitalist thinking and capitalist mentality have invaded Universities to such an extend, that the only way to liberate them from the shackles of budget costs and high workload is pushing this monster out again. Unfortunately, it may only be possible to do this by pushing for changes that go far beyond the walls of Academia.

Capitalist thinking has lead to a situation in which too much work has to be done by too few people. The number of students has increased rapidly over the past few decades, while the number of academics has remained more or less the same. In some fields there even has been a decrease in the number of academics. This means there is not enough labour available to do research, teach, supervise and perform a ton of mostly bullshit administrative duties. Capitalist thinking has created a perverse system of competition, disrespect for academic work, disrespect for unlucrative studies, and the sickening need to 'score' on every level: research projects, publications, graduated students, finished PhD's, et cetera. Power abuse, power struggles, plagiarism, mediocre research and bad teaching and supervising is an inevitable side effect of this.

What I am arguing here is mostly based on my own experiences in Academia in the Netherlands, but undoubtedly can be applied for the bigger part to the situation in other Western countries as well. If you are an academic and do not recognise (parts of) what I am describing, I can only say 'lucky you', but that does not mean these problems do not exist. In my career I have worked at three different Universities for over ten years and have experienced both the best sides and some of the worst sides. Not coincidentally, I have seen more of the worst sides in most recent years.

When I write 'capitalist mentality',  I refer to a thinking that is drenched in  'targets', 'costs', 'competition' and  'efficiency'. Unchecked capitalism is when this mentality becomes the leading motive for any policy decision and for the way academics themselves behave. Academics have tried to improve their situation, but maybe have not looked close enough at their own behaviour and at the root cause of all problems. Academics can ask for more funding. They can ask for more personnel. They can ask for less bureaucracy. In the end this will only soften the blows in the short term: currently Academia, just like any other sector in western society, is supposed to 'deliver', to demonstrate their monetary worth for society, to show they can write a chapter in that 'fairytale of eternal growth'.[1] Many of the most rebellious academics fight for Academia, but simultaneously play along in the capitalist game of showing how Academia has worth. To some degree this is understandable, because people who (still) work in Academia are the ones that came out on top of this same system. In order to get rid of the perverse parts of the current academic system, Academics need to detach themselves from the system itself, which is difficult because they are living in it and are depending on it for their job.

Capitalism kills any study without enough students

Recently the VU University Amsterdam stopped offering the study Dutch, because there were not enough students and it was not profitable anymore. This is only one extreme example, but basically the survival of any study relies on the number of students. Jobs and specialisations are killed off, because they are 'sick' in the view of administrators with a capitalist mentality.  Policy making is done based on the projected number of students. The question on how valuable it is that a study 'exists' in itself is hardly a part of the equation.

Obsession with Quality Papers that are not Quality papers kills Academia 

One of the major problems in Academia is the obsession with counting publications in so-called A journals. "A journals" are internationally orientated and follow a strict process of peer review by high ranked academic staff to ensure the quality of the contributions. The problem however, is that in practice this system is bankrupt because reviewers lack the time to spend on reviewing contributions.
Peer reviewing is done purely on a voluntary basis, which is self destructing if no one even ever has enough time to do the stuff they are being paid for.

It happened to me on several occasions that I had to ask after more than one year what the status of the reviewing process was. On two of such occasions there only was one peer review, which is not enough to base an 'accept' or a 'rejection' on. And those reviews were not even very good. Sloppy, hasty work, with very little helpful comments. Ironically, papers that I submitted to smaller 'B' or 'C' journals received more timely reviews, with more helpful comments and justified criticisms from the editorial boards.  Therefore what I consider my best work is published in the journals and other outlets that do not really count for much in the terms of Academic output. Not only the system itself is at fault here. All the academics worldwide, often high and mighty, who agree to review a paper but then do not meet the deadlines to actually do it, or do it badly, are part of the problem. Delegating such a task to junior researchers with less responsibilities, and who are not battered down yet by a system that more or less expects them to not meet deadlines, would be a logical step that only few seem to do. As an editor of two proceedings I experienced that the best reviews, with substantiated criticisms and helpful comments, were done *on time*, by PhD students. At some point I started avoiding A journals as outlets for my work, because of the absolute bullshitting of the review process, to possibly get an A publication of mediocre quality, that very few people would read. In terms of having an academic career however, that obviously was not the smartest thing to do.

Time Restraints Make Academics Sloppy and Self  Deluding 

A common problem in Academia is that lots of work gets published, but very little work is getting read. It's like thousands of academics worldwide are running on a treadmill to produce as many A rated publications as possible, which leaves 0 time to actually properly read what others are producing. Often academics make references to work they have hardly read, just because they are 'supposed' to do that to pass academic peer review. In order to get work published academics need to at least pretend they have read the work of the colleagues who are probably peer reviewing their papers. Senior researchers often mostly cite the same works they have read when they were still young and promising researchers, because they have not been able to read anything else since then.

This is not limited to papers only. During my last project there was one digital Tool that was cited often as a good example of what was being done in the field. In reality however, very few people who cited the tool actually had an idea of how it was supposed to work. Even the creators of the tool seemed to have only a vague idea of how it worked, and could not reproduce any of the research results or properly interpret new results. So we were all talking about it and had some vague idea about it, but no one really properly knew anything about it. It is quite possible we were all discussing a shit Tool.

Capitalist thinking creates a climate in which we are all doing what we think we are supposed to be doing. In the meantime we are collectively fooling ourselves and each other, in the hopes of becoming slightly better because of it, without thinking enough about whether what we are doing makes any sense.

The above examples are only the mild forms of 'abuse' present in Academia. Less common, but scarily common nonetheless, are malpractices in falsifying research data for fame and more funding. [2]  Plagiarism, and (boarderline) self-plagiarism are also used to boost academic scores.


Funding Schemes in their current form are a Perverse waste of Time and Resources


Other than publishing in journals that are A rated and get little to no attention (my paper in the Journal of Medieval History was highest cited for some time with no less than 6 (!) citations in five years, woop-dee-doo), it is imperative for researchers to at some point get external funding for their research.  Funding for student assistants, funding for a small program with a few researchers attached, or, the most megalomanous one, funding for a European project with a multitude of international partners. During my first Postdoc I wrote or co-wrote many proposals, had some minor successes but failed for the rest. Unfortunately, the vast majority of researchers fail at acquiring funding for their research, with acceptance rates being 10% at best and sometimes as low as 2%. Before going into the perverse economics behind the quest for funding, I will talk a bit about the criteria for accepting them.

All proposals for a 'funding scheme' on a national, transnational or European level are, again, sent out to external reviewers. These reviewers are, again, the overworked senior academics, that sometimes do not do their jobs properly when it comes down to 'extra stuff' like this. Usually there are at least three of them, sometimes more if everyone who was asked to do it actually does it. Since the competition is fierce you know that you need to get the highest, or at least the second highest score from each reviewer. If only one of these reviewers is on the verge of a burn-out, is in a bad mood, is simply an asshole that likes to ruin other people's lives, or couldn't be arsed to read the proposal properly, you probably are out, regardless of committees looking at the external reviews and regardless of the opportunity to write a rebuttal. So unless you are loved by practically everyone in the academic community, you always run the risk of getting all your hard work trashed because of bad reviewing. Bad reviewing that may have been caused by anything,  like old grudges, stress, laziness, bad news for their own research proposal, or finding out their child is on drugs. Naturally it could also work the other way around: getting a positive review because the reviewer had no time to read your proposal properly, but did not want to be mean. Therefore the chances of having a good proposal that is being trashed, or having a shit proposal that gets praised, are quite present.

Unfortunately, not only the research proposal is evaluated, but also the researchers involved. There have been tendencies to eliminate this criterium, and for good reasons. If professor X was successful in acquiring funding for project Magneto in the past, then obviously he is a good researcher and also deserves funding for project Magneto II. There is a high risk of circular arguments being applied here: professor X is a good chap because he already had 5 projects, so let's give him another project which will make him an even better chap for the next funding scheme. It's a brilliant recipe for making the rich even richer.

My biggest beef with the eternal quest for external funding, however, is the waste of time and resources. I will elaborate by providing one extreme example from my own experience. There was a European funding scheme that in the end granted 2% of the proposals. Therefore 49 out of 50 proposals were rejected. Obviously this is not worse than the rejection rate for applications for a job, but when you realise how much *paid labour* is put into each proposal, the waste of it all becomes mind boggling. In the consortium for our proposal we had representatives from the Netherlands, Austria and the United Kingdom, and a few smaller partners. Each partner had people working on the proposal, for weeks, and sometimes for months. We traveled abroad to meet each other. Every partner had administrative personnel looking at the budget. Every partner had Directors of Research giving their stamp of approval. Even when realising that a lot of this work was done in unpaid over hours, the amount of wasted, paid labour, often financed by grants that were supposed to be used for other research, is perverse. How can a capitalist system of competition, that is obsessed by numbers, finances and targets, waste so many resources?

I was one of the coordinators and main contributors to our proposal, because my boss asked me to and because I liked my boss. In the end it left us with nothing, except for a huge waste of time, tensions with our partners, and two postdoctoral researchers on the verge of a burn-out. This funding scheme produced 49 times this horrible result, versus 1 lucky consortium. This is when I decided I would not make such an attempt ever again, no matter how much I liked my boss.

Too Much Support, too little Research

Academics are trained in doing research and reporting about it. When they have to write research proposals they often get help from people who get paid more than they are. External experts who apparently know all about how to 'market' your research, external editors and translators, internal experts who guide your proposal step-by-step, deans and research Directors who are supposed to help, financial experts who have a say on how to spend the money if granted, et cetera. Even though most of these people mean well, there are an awful lot of them. There are more non-Academic people working at Universities than actual academics, and some of them cost a shitload of money.

So a capitalist system, driven by irrational competition, forces universities to waste a lot of money on paying people that help academics to have a proper chance of getting research funded, instead of spending it directly on research. And the worst part is, that there is no evidence that all these helpful people actually play a positive role in getting research funded.

Wasting Money Internationally  

In this capitalist system of Academia international relations are considered to be of utmost importance. Conferences where researchers from all over the world meet and conferences where policy makers strike mutually beneficial deals. All of this is accompanied by expensive flights, lunches, dinners, conference fees, et cetera. I have been to quite a few of such conferences, some of them useful, while others consisted mostly of a load of bullshitting around and were mainly a nice opportunity for cheap holidays. I always was only one of the 'smaller dogs' of the pack, with the top dogs going to a manifold of (international) meetings, flying all over the world wasting even more money and killing the environment.

I once was an invited speaker for a conference in Canada, an 8 hour flight from here. The other guest speaker was invited from Spain, another 8 hour flight. Even though both of us were perfectly capable of delivering an interesting enough talk, there was no way to justify the expenses of bringing us there. Canadian colleagues could have done more or less the same and otherwise Skype could have helped.

If Academics want to reduce expenses, they have to look very carefully at the expenses they are making themselves, even if it is paid out of a 'project budget''  (if you are one of the lucky 2% a lot is possible with project budgets).

Trapped in your own Capitalist Bullshit

Then there is some more brain melting stuff that will vary from University to University, My last employer built so many useless, efficiency driven, capitalist protocols, that one department could take another department of the same University hostage for no reason a sensible person could understand.

Let me give one extreme example. My Mac, paid for by the University, broke down. According to protocol I brought it to the MacStore for repairs. The machine could not be repaired and the MacStore gave me a new machine that was exactly the same. This new machine however, did not have the sticker from the IT department that was on my old machine. When my project was finished after 3 years I had to hand in my machine, which I did. The IT department however, protested that they could not verify this was 'their machine' and therefore would continue charging my old department for the use of the broken machine. The machine I handed in could not be used by any other researchers, because it was labelled as 'unknown material'.

So to summarise: I handed in a machine that was 2 years old instead of the expected 3, which should have been a good thing. Instead of rejoicing, however, my department had to continue paying for support for a machine that did not exist anymore, (even though there was no actual support ever for Macs from my department, it was just another protocol thingie!), while the 2 year old machine would be wasted doing nothing and two different branches of the same University were fighting each other! A prime example of perverse and  irrational protocols created by capitalist thinking, wasting valuable resources.

Bullshitting Around

I had the pleasure of working for and with many inspiring colleagues, who held their heads high in the Capitalist world of Academia. They had ideals and a love for science. Unfortunately, sometimes people with good intentions can do a lousy job, which was the case in my last project. It was an interdisciplinary project, directly funded by two Amsterdam universities with no less than five highly renowned chair-holders from different disciplines involved. Unfortunately the original research proposal, that miraculously, was granted, was vague in its goals, ambitions, and the way in which the research from the different disciplines would have to be connected. 

The result was that most Project Meetings were filled with vague ideas and a lot of bullshit. The project leaders did not (always) prepare properly for these meetings, had no idea what the actual researchers were doing and why, gave input that made no sense, and left the researchers mostly frustrated at the end of each meeting. Drafts of papers were hardly ever read. Contributions to papers were hardly ever made. Agreements on when to do what were not honoured, Deadlines proposed by the project leaders were not met by the same project leaders. One of the project leaders even decided it was none of his business anymore and skipped all shared project meetings after the first few.  This is not because all of these project leaders were awful people. On the contrary, they all were idealistic Academics, striving to always advance knowledge in their own discipline. Unfortunately, the entire project was victim of miscommunications between the disciplines, too ambitious and vague goals, and not having one clear project leader who felt responsible for the project. Most of this can be blamed again on not having enough time to do things properly. The project was funded and there were not enough incentives to continue putting a lot of effort in it.

Obviously, in the end, the researchers themselves, not the supervisors, are responsible for the victories and failures of their own projects. Bullshit project meetings like those however, were counterproductive, and a huge waste of time, potential and resources.

I have seen worse than this though. There are people who are literally bullshitting from one project to the other, flying all over the world and making international connections, but never delivering any research results that go far beyond the original research proposal. To them it does not matter much how they are doing their job. They have convinced themselves that playing the capitalist game is most important to survive and they thrive in doing so, turning themselves into capitalist-academic monstrosities. 

Power abuse

All of the above can potentially lead to terrible power abuse. Fortunately I have not experienced this myself, but this is probably because I am white and male. Recently, examples of sexism and power abuse have become public, that are only the tip of the Iceberg.  People in power, the chair-holders, the directors and the deans, that are responsible for the numbers and the output, and sometimes also the financing of projects and departments, can potentially exert a lot of power on the people working for them and that are dependent on their good will to get another temporary job. There is a small 'elite' at universities with permanent contracts, that is in charge of the "researcher working bees" with temporary contracts. When money speaks, corruption and abuse follow in its wake. While in the past Universities assumed that this kind of corruption only takes place in business companies, institutions with an inherently capitalist signature, it has become clear that universities are not spared from this kind of power abuse either.


Unhealthy Labour Mentality

Capitalist thinking has also led to 'survival of the fittest' in Academia, instead of survival of the smartest (obviously though, it is perfectly possible for the fittest to also be the smartest). If you cannot commit many over hours to your job you are likely to eventually perish in the race for tenure. No one ever seems to question why we consider it to be normal that Academics spend 60-80 hours per week on their job instead of 40. Part time jobs exist, but even for those you often 'are supposed' to work full-time in reality, or write research proposals in 'your spare time' .

Other than this kind of labour mentality being unhealthy, it also creates a system of unfair competition. It is difficult to compete for women who want to get pregnant, for people with disabilities and, in general, for any person who is a 'caretaker'. The number of women in Academia significantly decreases the moment they could continue their career from junior level to mid level. Even though the situation is improving, only 20% of chair-holders in the Netherlands identify as female.

Finally: Recommendations? 

The main argument of this Blog is that even though all efforts to fight for Academia are inspiring and justified, it is mostly fighting the symptoms. The cause lies much deeper, with Academia becoming more firmly entrenched in capitalist thinking over the past few decades.

Improvement will not simply come from 'more money', 'more funding', or 'more personnel'. This would only be playing along in the capitalist system and, to be honest, academics in general are (fortunately) not very good at this game. More than anything, permanent change will require recalibrating thinking. To move away from capitalism to a more social model of being in Academia. Obviously this is easier said than done.

Universities should become more efficient, but not in the way they think. Get rid of everyone who has a supporting role in writing a research proposal. I know these people mean well, but without them there is more money for actual research. Get rid of everyone responsible for publicity and marketing as well. Reduce the salary of chair-holders, deans and research directors. Reduce the number of policy makers. Stop having bullshit protocols between different parts of your own organization. Remember what your core business is: research and education, everything else is of secondary importance. You are a university, not a company. Get rid of all thinking in numbers and efficiency.

Academics should detach themselves from the over hours and demand being able to do their job properly within one full working week of 40 hours. Do NOT accept to peer review anything if you cannot do it properly within the deadline. Do NOT agree to supervise a project unless you are willing to do a proper job at it. Even doing half a proper job will do more harm than good. Stop fooling yourself with 'obligatory citations' and call out bullshit when you see it. Do not fly to Conferences more than once a year. Stop putting so much value on publications in A journals. Stop wasting so much time on research proposals.

External financiers should stop wasting money. Do not run any funding schemes that does not honour at least 10% of all applications, even if this means introducing a maximum number of applicants.
Only ask applicants to write a 'full proposal' if they have at least a 50% chance of getting funded.
Reward external reviewers, let them sign contracts, do not accept delays or sloppy reviewing.

Governments should hand more money directly to Universities instead of external financiers and have some faith it is spent well Stop looking at Universities as companies that "produce" knowledge and graduated students, but instead look at them as institutions in which important knowledge is generated in dialogue and where students become smarter and better people.Stop financing universities by looking at the number of students and diplomas. Have some damn respect for academics and their research



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* Edit 16 April 2020: removed a paragraph on the eroding of the status of PhD students. Not because it is unimportant, but because this blog already was quite long and the situation I described mostly applies to the Netherlands.

[1] Nicely worded by Greta Thunberg in her speech to the United Nations on 23 September 2019.
[2] Most famous example being Diederik Stapel: https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diederik_Stapel




zaterdag 15 juni 2019

De rol van Willem III bij de veroordeling van Cornelis de Witt, niet bij de moord op Johan de Witt

Enkele jaren geleden schreef ik voor Historisch Tijdschrift Holland een recensie van het mooie boek van Prud'Homme van Reine over de moord op de gebroeders De Witt.

In deze recensie verschil ik van mening met de auteur over de interpretatie van een sleutelpassage in een van de belangrijkste bronnen over de moord. Omdat ik dat verschil van mening tamelijk belangrijk vind, en ik er in mijn oneindige bescheidenheid van overtuigd ben gelijk te hebben, volgt de recensie nu ook hier:

Raad pensionaris Johan de Witt (1653-1672) is zonder twijfel een van de boeiendste en meest besproken figuren uit de Gouden Eeuw. Enigszins in zijn schaduw, zoals maar weer blijkt uit de titel van dit boek, maar altijd aanwezig, is Johans oudere broer Cornelis. De broers werden op 20 augustus 1672, in het rampjaar, vermoord en hun lichamen op afgrijslijke wijze verminkt. Er is al eeuwenlang een debat gaande over hoe deze dubbelmoord heeft kunnen plaatsvinden. De dubieuze rol van stadhouder Willem III is daarbij vooral een onderwerp van de nodige controverse geweest, hoewel in de populaire tv-serie De Gouden Eeuw (aflevering 13, 5 maart 2013) die hele discussie niet wordt genoemd, vermoedelijk omdat dat niet in lijn zou zijn met de bijna onsmakelijke verheerlijking van Willem III in de rest van de aflevering.
In 2009 organiseerde de Nederlandse Vereniging Vrienden van de Witt (opgericht in 2005) een symposium over de moord op de gebroeders, waar ook de auteur van dit boek,  historicus (van vooral de Gouden Eeuw) en publicist Ronald Prud’Homme van Reine, een lezing gaf. Op het symposium stelde de auteur de vraag waarom niemand ooit serieus onderzoek had gedaan naar de achtergronden van de moordenaars van de gebroeders De Witt. Hij besloot uiteindelijk zelf dat onderzoek te doen, waarvan de resultaten zijn vastgelegd in dit boek.
Bij de moordenaars gaat het om de circa tien mannen die aanwijsbaar de trekker hebben overgehaald en op de broers hebben ingehakt en geslagen, voordat ze werden overgeleverd aan de woedende menigte. De gebeurtenissen die voorafgingen aan de dubbelmoord zijn in grote lijnen genoeg bekend. Cornelis de Witt werd door de louche barbier Willem Tichelaar ervan beschuldigd een moordaanslag te beramen op stadhouder Willem III. Ondanks het complete gebrek aan bewijs werd Cornelis schuldig bevonden door de raadsheren van het Hof van Holland. Toen broer Johan, die kort daarvoor onder druk van de publieke opinie al was afgetreden als raadpensionaris, hem op de dag van het vonnis kwam bezoeken,  werden de broers belaagd door een woedende, opgehitste volksmenigte en uiteindelijk ook door een deel van de schutters. Het einde is bekend.  Stadhouder Willem III reageerde door de daders te belonen, waardoor hij verdacht is geworden als opdrachtgever van de moord.
Ronald Prud’Homme van Reine vroeg zich af waarom niemand ooit serieus onderzoek had gedaan naar de achtergronden van de moordenaars van de gebroeders De Witt. Hij besloot dat onderzoek uiteindelijk zelf te doen
De sleutelhoofdstukken van dit boek zijn hoofdstukken 5 (‘De moord’) en 6 (‘De moordenaars en hun medeplichtigen’). De rest van het boek biedt een verdienstelijke synthese van de bestaande literatuur, maar levert weinig nieuws en had wat mij betreft sterk ingekort kunnen worden. De auteur heeft in hoofdstuk 6 genoeg interessants te melden over de moordenaars. Het waren grotendeels onbetrouwbare types, die vrijwel allen voor hun aandeel in de moord werden beloond en ook in latere jaren onbetrouwbare lieden bleken te zijn. De auteur maakt aannemelijk dat hun optreden was gedirigeerd door oude vijanden van de gebroeders: Tromp, Kievit en Zuylestein. Spectaculairder is de vondst van de auteur (hoofdstuk 5) van een brief waaruit blijkt dat Willem III een aantal dagen voor de moord in Den Haag was. De enige tijdgenoot die dat had beschreven was procureur Copmoijer, wiens vermelding daarvan tot dusver weinig serieus was genomen. De auteur toont niet alleen aan dat Copmoijer wat betreft de aanwezigheid van Willem gelijk had, maar ook dat hij verder als een betrouwbaar getuige mag gelden.
Het waren grotendeels onbetrouwbare types, die vrijwel allen voor hun aandeel in de moord werden beloond en ook in latere jaren onbetrouwbare lieden bleken te zijn
Wat deed Willem III daar in Den Haag? En wat waren de ‘zaken van zeer groot belang’ waarover hij zijn verwant Johan Maurits van Nassau daar schreef? Volgens de auteur, die zich daarbij baseert op het verslag van Copmoijer, overlegde Willem met de belangrijkste complotteurs in het huis van de Oranjegezinde Odijk.  Als dat waar is, dan is het bijzonder aannemelijk dat Willem op zijn minst van de moordplannen op de hoogte was en misschien zelfs heeft geïnitieerd.  De auteur hangt voor zijn constructie veel op aan de identificatie van de mannen met wie Willem gesproken zou hebben, die door Copmoijer ‘heeren uyt ‘’t Hof’ worden genoemd. De auteur identificeert ze als hovelingen (p. 93), waartoe in ieder geval Zuylestein en misschien ook Albrantswaard behoord zouden hebben. Tromp en Kievit zouden daar dan waarschijnlijk ook aanwezig zijn, als hebbende connecties met die twee. Op p. 183 staat het voor de auteur zelfs vast dat Willem III met deze mannen overleg heeft gepleegd. Hoewel het zeker mogelijk is dat het zo is gebeurd, is er minder aanleiding om dat te denken dan de auteur doet voorkomen.
Een dubieuze rol van Willem III bij de veroordeling van Cornelis de Witt is  aannemelijker dan een rol bij de daadwerkelijke moord
Het is volgens mij veel waarschijnlijker dat de ‘Heeren uyt ’t Hof’ leden waren van het Hof van Holland. Het was immers een bijeenkomt in Den Haag, waar het Hof van Holland zetelde, en procureur Copmoijer werkte bij dat zelfde hof. ‘Het Hoff’ was ook gewoon een gebruikelijke aanduiding voor het college van raadsheren van het Hof van Holland. Willem III had als stadhouder van Holland en Zeeland toegang tot de Raadkamer en mocht zich ambtshalve bemoeien met de rechtspraak van het Hof. Bovendien noemt Copmoijer even later in zijn verslag de heren Zuylestein en Tromp wel bij naam, dus waarom zou hij dat eerder met een dergelijke cryptische beschrijving doen?  De bijeenkomst vond plaats kort voor de marteling en veroordeling van Cornelis de Witt. Het lijkt er daarom op dat Willem juist zijn stempel heeft willen drukken op het vonnis dat de raadsheren zouden vellen, door een paar dagen daarvoor overleg te plegen met een aantal van hen. Een dubieuze rol van Willem III bij de veroordeling van Cornelis de Witt is daarmee aannemelijker dan een rol bij de daadwerkelijke moord.
Wat er uiteindelijk precies gebeurd en bekokstoofd is, zal waarschijnlijk altijd in nevelen gehuld blijven. Met dit boek is de moord zeker niet opgelost, zoals wel beweerd wordt door de NOS, maar het is zeer de vraag of dat ooit met sluitend bewijs zal lukken. Prud’Homme van Reine schept met zijn benadering van het onderwerp en enkele mooie vondsten wel meer licht in de duisternis, waardoor zijn boek een geslaagd exemplaar is in de nog altijd aanzwellende historiografie over de gebroeders De Witt.
Deze recensie is verschenen in Holland Historisch Tijdschrift (2014-1).
Verwijzing: Holland Historisch Tijdschrift, Serge ter Braake, 24 april 2013.

woensdag 17 oktober 2018

On Echo Chambers, Statistical Principles, Vaccinations and Autism

The Centuries Old Vaccination Debate
The 'vaccination debate' is as old as the introduction of the first vaccinations in the eighteenth century. A minority of anti vaccinationists rejected vaccinations with 4 main arguments, which have stayed remarkably the same over the centuries: 1) vaccinations cause all kinds of harm (syphilis, measles, encephalitis, autism, death, et cetera, depending on the time period); 2) vaccinations are unnatural; 3) vaccinations are against God's predestination; 4) vaccinations are forced upon us by Edward Jenner/the pharmaceutical industry to earn profit.[1]

Unfortunately, in the twentyfirst century anti vaccinationists are winning ground and vaccination rates are dropping. This causes a global public health risk.  The anti-vaccination lobby would not be so successful if more people had a better grasp of vaccination history, basic causality, communication science and statistics.[2]  As a historian, a 'data scientist' and a father I will argue why the idea that vaccinations cause all kinds of bad side effects, most notably autism, is a dangerous myth.  If you are convinced vaccinations cause harm I do not have much faith in changing your mind, even if you are still reading, unless you keep an open mind. This blog is mostly for people who are in doubt, or are not sure what to think. Or for people who are not in doubt but want to use more solid arguments against anti vaccinationists. I will demonstrate that even though it is very understandable people still think vaccinations cause harm, there is no basis in facts or logic to do so.

Echo Chambers and Confirmation Bias
In this century the vaccination debate has found its way to online communities, where it has been carried on with increased intensity.[3] Despite irrefutable scientific evidence to the contrary, an alarming number of people are convinced that vaccinations cause autism or other unwanted side effects. This at least has partly to do with the online world facilitating the easy creation of new 'echo chambers'. Echo chambers are sealed off (metaphorical) spaces in which like minded people find each other and confirm each other in their beliefs. In earlier times echo chambers were mostly formed in small communities, but in the online world they can integrate people from all over the world. The internet also facilitates the availability of all kinds of information. It is human to read and believe the information that confirms what you already know, even if it is contradicted by many more, and better substantiated, sources. When people lock themselves up in Echo Chambers where one sided information is spread among like minded individuals it even can seem as if the majority of the population think like they do. Any information that says the contrary can likewise be easily dismissed.[4]

The Outliers have more impact on public perception
It is highly unlikely, yet still possible, that a vaccination causes an unwanted side effect. Still, stories of the failures are the ones that spread rapidly. You rarely hear someone saying a vaccination went perfectly, for the simple reason that it is not really something special to report. If something, supposedly, goes wrong people are far more likely to share their story. This is why the outliers, the results that are most unlike regular results, have more impact. If 1 in 10.000 vaccinations have some kind of bad side effect this potentially has much more influence on public perception than the 9.999 vaccinations that went just fine. Already in the nineteenth century anti vaccinationists often had a few horror stories ready to scare parents into not vaccinating. Since the (online) world is a big place the number of scary experiences can go up quickly, even if relatively speaking the number is still small and insignificant. A case file of a hundred 'horror stories' can serve as a scary deterrent for young parents to vaccinate.

Sometimes we have to accept we do not know or can not influence the cause
Something else which is human, is the compulsive need to understand the world and to be able to influence what is going on. In earlier centuries when a harvest failed it was the work of the devil, or a witch, or a punishment from God. You could try to improve your fate by burning the witch or by praying. A simple 'bad luck' with the weather conditions is more difficult to accept, since you cannot do much about that as an individual. No one likes to be a helpless victim of 'dumb bad luck'. Still, sometimes we have to accept this.

Just because B follows A does not mean A caused B
The difficulty to accept being helpless also is part of the reason that the link between vaccinations and autism is so persistent. It is unknown why one child is autistic and the other is not, except that it seems to have something to do with genetics. Vaccinations are scary, because it is difficult to understand what you are really injecting into your child. If your child also becomes 'visibly autistic' around age two, shortly after it received its second MMR vaccination, it is natural to think of a causal relation between something scary and something inexplicable. Human instincts are still very 'medieval'. For inexplicable phenomena people look for unlikely causes to channel their feelings of fear and helplessness. This feeling can be stronger than solid evidence that there is no causal relation between autism and vaccinations, and the exposure of the first scientist who made this claim as a fraud. [5]

Within a mass of big data there are no regular patterns
It also is important to realise that data do not follow any regular patterns. Statistics quickly can seem false if your own perceptions show a completely different pattern. Imagine that according to statistics 1 in 1000 children gets a high fever after being vaccinated, but that in your near surroundings you already know three children who were struck with high fevers. It is easy to think that the numbers should be 1 in 10 instead of 1 in 1000. The study must be flawed or maybe the government has made it up! It would however be extremely unlikely, even if all the other circumstances were the same, that a statistical pattern is regular. For many professors this knowledge even is a way to quickly spot badly falsified data. A normal pattern is not A, B, C, D, E, A, B, C, D, E, but the more random A, A, A, C, E, A, A, B, A. Results clump together, which is why many gamblers can think they are in a 'winning streak'. It however is not a winning streak, but a normal result within the advertised odds of winning or losing. Every gamble has the same chance of success, regardless of the gambler having won or lost ten times before the current gamble.

Measuring more does not mean there is more than before
It does not help that autism seems to be a modern phenomenon. People therefore try to blame modern vaccinations and changes in the environment or even food patterns. It is true that an increasing number of people are diagnosed with autism. This does not (necessarily) mean more people are autistic than before. The 'elf children', 'eccentric uncles' or 'siblings in the lunatic asylum' from centuries gone by would now get a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Over the past decades, the definition of autism also has been extended to include many more variations than before. To give one extreme example: not so long ago doctors could claim that only boys were autistic. Obviously the number of diagnoses will go up when you start including the other half of the earth's population as possible candidates as well. It also is more difficult for people on the spectrum to go 'unnoticed'. Modern society likes to measure, quantify and categorise everything. Furthermore, and far more damaging, modern society subjects people to many difficult-to-channel impulses. One may wonder if brilliant minds of the past who may have been on the spectrum, like Mozart, Darwin and Einstein, could have flourished in the 21st century like they did in their own time.

Finally
Even if all of this was not true, and vaccinations indeed cause autism, why would any parent prefer to have a child die from measles or polio over having an autistic child?


[1] D. Porter and R. Porter. 1998. The politics of prevention: anti-vaccinationism and public health in nineteenth century EnglandMedical History, 32:231–252; C. E. Daniels. 1875. De kinderpokinenting in Nederland: meerendeels naar onuitgegeven bescheiden bew- erkt: eene medisch-historische studie. Amsterdam.; W. Rutten. 1997. De vreselijkste aller harpijen. Pokkenepidemieen en pokkenbestrijding in Nederland in de 18e en 19e eeuw. Universiteit Wageningen.
[2 I thank my basic understanding of statistics to Statistic Reasoning for Everyday Life by Bennett, Briggs and Triola.
[3] Ana Lucia Schmidt, Fabiana Zollo Antonio Scala, Cornelia Betsch, and Walter Quattrociocchi. 2018. Polarization of the vaccination debate on FacebookVaccine, 36:3606–3612
[4]T. Chamorro-Premuzic. 13 May 2014. How the web distorts reality and impairs our judgement skills. The Guardian; M. del Vicario, G. Vivaldo, A. Bessi, F. Zollo, A. Scala, G. Caldarelli, and W. Quattrociocchi. 2016. Echo chambers: Emotional contagion and group polarization on FacebookSCIENTIFIC REPORTS, 6, 37825

dinsdag 4 september 2018

Big Data and Autism - A Metaphorical Link

For the past six years I have been working in the field of Digital Humanities, trying to make sense of ‘big data’ for humanities research with computational methods. Exploring the possibilities and limitations, to seek out new methodologies and basically to go where no humanist has gone before.


For the past six years I also have been the father of a daughter, Anna, with autism. What I have been doing professionally she has been doing her entire life: trying to make sense of the ‘big data’ in her head with the methods she has at her disposal.


It is difficult to define what autism is. It is a spectrum with many symptoms, and individuals on the spectrum will be affected differently. For me it helps the most to think of autism as an ‘information processing disorder’. People with autism, or people with ASD (autism spectrum disorder),  see and view the world fundamentally differently than people without. Often they have trouble filtering information and sounds, which can make the outside world an overwhelming place. This filtering of information and data also can be a problem for the processes taking place in the heads of people with autism. It is difficult to find the right piece of data for every situation, turn it into useful information and knowledge and use that in a practical way. As a consequence, some people with autism barely speak, or are even completely mute. Others do the opposite and will rant endlessly to compensate. Others do both. Some do not speak, but do read and write. People with autism can therefore be very present, or completely silent. People with autism often have difficulty functioning in modern society, with its fast pace and many daily impulses. Autism should, however, be considered as a variety, not as a disability, and most certainly not as a desease. Many people with an autistic brain can function well, some would say even better, if circumstances allow it. Some of the greatest minds in history, like Mozart, Darwin and Einstein, may have had autism. Some people with autism are disabled, because they cannot function in society on their own. Most, however, just function differently. Only time will tell how ‘severe’ my daughter Anna’s autism will continue to be. She does not speak normally; sometimes she does not speak at all; at this point there is no way of knowing if she will ever function (properly) in society; if she will ever know romantic love; if she will able to cope with the loss of loved ones; if she will ever deal with her neurotypical brother on equal terms; if she can ever live on her own. At this point there is no greater fear in my life than the thought that she will die alone in some kind of nursing home, frustrated and misunderstood, thirty years after me and my wife are gone.  


Coming back to the Big Data Metaphor: when looking at Anna I often wish I could know what she is thinking. And I often wish I could make sense of the ‘big data’ in her brain. It’s like there is a barrier in Anna’s head, which makes it difficult to make sense of all the pieces of data. We do not know how ‘big’ the data in her head is, but we suspect it is big. She was extremely fast as a baby to learn words, phrases, songs, et cetera. Ironically it looked like she would be able to speak well ahead of her age. This changed when her autism stopped her from channeling all the data in her head into speech, when she was around two years old.  It is therefore likely that since that time she has amassed a huge pile of ‘big data’ that begs to be sorted, categorised, and, most importantly, translated into useful information and knowledge.


Some pieces of data are easy to find for Anna. Especially colours. She can play happily with a yellow ball while repeating ‘the yellow, the yellow’. Sometimes she even refers to me and my wife with the colour of clothes we are wearing. When she is searching for a toy she can continue repeating ‘Does Anna want the blue, does Anna want the blue’.  Making me and my wife desperate in repeatedly asking her ‘the blue what, Anna?’ Anna knows the word of the item she is looking for, but it causes her visible pain to delve deeper into her brain and find and use this piece of data.


At times Anna taps into more data to describe a situation, and very rarely this even makes her sound almost neurotypical. Anna’s biggest problem may be grasping the link between words and having a ‘normal’ conversation. She uses the big data in her head to let us know what she wants, or needs. If a child in the playground tries to strike a conversation with her, she stays mute, unable to respond well to an unexpected query in a different setting from an unknown person.


Anna’s problems with dealing with the big data in her head makes her attached to the structures she does know in her life. When we prepare her to go to ‘school’ she knows she has to take the bus to go there. When we walk to the car on Sunday she knows we will do grocery shopping. When we take the car on another day she knows we may do something fun, like going to her grandparents, or to an amusement park or petting zoo. If something does not go according to what she expects, a little drama can unfold. If, for example, we drive in grandfather’s direction but go somewhere else she will protest. If we cannot eat french fries for lunch when ‘going out’ she will protest (even in a pancake house).


As a researcher it is my duty to try to do proper and conscientious research with big humanities data. As a parent it is my duty to try to hand Anna the algorithms to make sense of the big data in her head. The metaphor can be carried on to quite some extend: Some things are easy to find with the algorithms, like colours, while others seem to be unattainable at the moment. If something unexpected happens the algorithm will fail. Sometimes we have to accept a less than optimal result. Sometimes we only are able to scrape data, without getting any information or knowledge. And we always should be aware that maybe for some things we have already reached the summit of what we can achieve.


Fortunately Anna has one advantage to help her out: the human mind is wonderful and powerful. An algorithm or methodology for humanities research can only be improved by the researchers. Anna’s mind is a processing pipeline that she will continue to improve over time. That way she may be able herself to find the proper pathways to make sense of the big data in her head and translate it into information, knowledge and eventually communication. Time will tell.

dinsdag 5 december 2017

Sinterklaas Digitaal

Sinterklaas in 2017

Terwijl ik dit schrijf is het voor velen bijna pakjesavond. Kinderen in heel Nederland kijken reikhalzend uit naar het moment dat Sinterklaas langskomt of een zak met cadeautjes voor de deur zet. Sinds de tijd dat ik zelf zo'n kind was heeft het feest voor mij haar onschuld verloren door de 'Pietendiscussie' met als dieptepunt het blokkeren van de snelweg naar Dokkum om een anti-Pieten-demonstratie te voorkomen.  Ik had een heel blog kunnen schrijven over alleen dat onderwerp, maar gelukkig zijn er velen die dat beter gedaan hebben dan ik ooit zou kunnen. Wat ik wel kan is een digitale analyse geven van de manier waarop de Sint en zijn knecht in 'algemene' tijdschriften De Gids (vanaf 1837-1909) (DG) en Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen (1776-1876) (VLO) voorkwamen in de negentiende eeuw, om te kijken hoe die 'traditie' er toen uitzag. Niet om een geschiedenis van Sint en Piet te schrijven, want hun Wikipedia pagina's zijn al rijkelijk gevuld, maar wel als een poging de huidige overspannenheid te relativeren.

58 teksten met Sinterklaas
Een simpele word search in DG en VLO geeft mij 58 teksten waarin 'Sinterklaas', 'Sint Nicolaas' of een spellingsvariant voorkomt. Een deel van deze teksten gaan helemaal niet over Sinterklaas. Zo is er ook een stad Sint Nikolaas, gaan sommige teksten over het aanroepen van de heilige of over mythen rond hem, en was "Sint Nikolaas" blijkbaar ook een achternaam. De meeste verwijzingen slaan echter wel op de goedheiligman zoals wij die nu kennen: de kindervriend die vooral bekend is door het Sinterklaasfeest. DG en VLO bespraken alles dat van belang kon zijn voor de beschaafde Nederlander. Dat de goedheiligman in ruim 40.000 artikelen slechts sporadisch voorkomt mag als eerste relativering gelden.

In VLO noemt men de Sint pas vanaf het tweede kwart van de negentiende eeuw. DG bestond toen nog niet, maar meteen in de eerste aflevering in 1837 wordt de man wel genoemd. Van een Pietendiscussie was nog in zijn geheel geen sprake, wat niet zo verwonderlijk was omdat de knecht van Sint praktisch niet voorkomt en ook nog geen Piet heet.

Wat data over de Sint en zijn knecht
Een vijftigtal vermeldingen van de Sint, soms in artikelen die compleet ergens anders over gingen, lenen zich niet heel goed voor kwantitatieve analyses, dus ik moet het hier laten bij wat anekdotische vondsten in een onwetenschappelijke bloemlezing.

Het eerste wat opvalt is dat Sinterklaas vroeger blijkbaar door de schoorsteen kwam. Iets kon immers 'uit de lucht ploffen als Sinterklaas door een schoorsteen'. Iets waar hij ruim honderd jaar later te oud voor is geworden, in tegenstelling tot zijn dikke alter ego uit de Verenigde Staten.

Niet alleen kinderen konden hun hart ophalen rond Sinterklaas. Blijkbaar stuurden ook volwassenen elkaar wel eens wat, zonder daarbij te vermelden dat het van hen kwam ('en weet je niet van wien?'). Een soort voorloper van de huidige surprises dus.

Niet alle associaties met Sinterklaas waren even vleiend. Zo werd hij ook wel eens geassocieerd met bedriegerij, sprookjes en onechtheid. Zo is er één vermelding van 'Sinterklaas-Christenen', en wordt Sinterklaas elders in één zin genoemd met 'een boeman', een 'drooge sloot', een 'papieren muur'. In een andere tekst wordt hij samen met 'Blauwbaard' genoemd als voorbeeld van een fabelfiguur. Soms wordt Sinterklaas ook geassocieerd met verkwisting, door 'tal van geschenken rondom te strooijen,' en werd er opgeroepen ook aan de armen te denken. Het Sinterklaasfeest was in ieder geval een goede marketing techniek, want sommige producten werden specifiek aanbevolen als Sinterklaasgeschenken. Banketbakkerijen deden ook goede zaken tijdens Sinterklaas, waar de (rijke) kinderen hun 'stoutste droomen' verwezenlijkt zagen.

Tegen het einde van de negentiende eeuw lijken steeds meer inmiddels traditionele elementen ingeburgerd te raken, zoals het terugkeren naar Spanje, het 'strooien', de 'pepernoten' en 'het lekkers' in de 'zak'. Dit alles vermoedelijk voor een groot deel dankzij het boekje van Jan Schenkman uit 1850, getiteld Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht. De knecht van Sinterklaas was gedurende de negentiende eeuw vooral onzichtbaar. Als hij er wel is, is het er bovendien altijd maar één. Tegen het einde van de negentiende eeuw was hij echter wel zwart. Als een dreumes uit een literaire tekst uit 1889 vol ontzag opkijkt naar een grote vreemdeling, vraagt hij of dat misschien de knecht is van Sinterklaas. Hem wordt dan verteld dat dat toch niet kan, omdat de vreemdeling wit is en de knecht 'pitzwart'. De enige keer dat 'den zwarten knecht' in deze bronnen bij naam wordt genoemd heet hij echter Hansje. Nergens wordt trouwens vermeld waarom de knecht zwart is.

Sinterklaas dus
Wat kunnen wij hier nu van leren? Niet zoveel, maar waarschijnlijk vooral dat men in de negentiende eeuw niet zo overspannen deed over Sinterklaas als nu. Dat terwijl het feest toen ook al minstens driehonderd jaar bestond en sinds die tijd al vele gedaanteveranderingen had doorstaan. In de negentiende eeuw zijn er zonder slag of stoot, bewust of onbewust, veel veranderingen gekomen in het Sinterklaasfeest. Toen hadden we ook nog geen internet om anderen onze mening op te dringen, televisie om het feest nationaal te vieren, of mobiele telefoons om een wegblokkade te coördineren. We hadden wel dingen als slavenhandel en kinderpokken, dus weinig reden om nostalgisch te doen. Ze hadden toen genoeg andere dingen om overspannen van te raken.



maandag 29 augustus 2016

The Next Rembrandt: why did you do that?!

Michael Crichton's book Jurassic Park  caused a true 'dinomania' when Steven Spielberg decided to make a movie out of it in the early nineties of the previous century. The brilliance of his book lies in the scary message it conveys: even if science shows that you can do it, there may still be good reasons not to do it. It may not be a good idea to create a weapon of mass destruction (too late for that). It may not be a good idea to clone a dinosaur (still quite impossible). The question every scientist should ask him or herself is the same they ask their children on a daily basis: 'Why did you do that?!" It is tempting to say that the humanities are very good at asking the 'why' question, as suggested by the picture below, but that seems to be just vanity, as if the natural scientists never consider if they should be doing what they are doing.


This year a digital humanities project was in the news that was highly impressive and intriguing, but also immediately raised the question with me: 'Why did you do that?!' A team of the University of Delft collaborated with Microsoft and museum the Mauritshuis to create the 'next Rembrandt', a painting of the seventeenth century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. Their work is generously sponsored by the Dutch ING bank. They have put a very nice video on their website in which they explain how they worked on creating the 'next Rembrandt'. 

According to ING spokesperson Tjitske Benedictus, the ING wanted to bring their 'innovative spirit' to art and culture. Ron Augustus from Microsoft says they use 'technology and data' to create something like Rembrandt did with his paintbrushes. They had the computer analyse a large number of  (portrait) paintings from Rembrandt, to extract the typical Rembrandt 'nose',  'eyes', 'ear' and 'mouth', and calculate the distance between them on a face. They planted these features on a typical Rembrandt person, which not surprisingly is a 30-40 years old Caucasian male, leading to the 'next Rembrandt' (or 'average Rembrandt' maybe), printed by a 3D printer.

Even though I am very much impressed by the science behind all of this, the question remains 'why would you want to do that?' David de Witt from the Mauritshuis mentioned that Rembrandt was famous for being able to portray human emotions better than his contemporaries.  Emotions from real people, immortalised by the grand master is what makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt. This 'next Rembrandt' however, is nothing more than an average of all those emotions,  planted on an average face of an average person that never existed, and as such not interesting. The creators may believe that Rembrandt would be pleased if he knew his work still lives on like this, but I find it more probable he would ask 'Why did you do that? My real paintings are still displayed all over the world.'
At the end of the video ING's T. Benedictus concludes:  'The Next Rembrandt makes you think about where innovation can take us, what’s next?' Despite my reservations about the product itself, I indeed am thinking of where this innovation could take us. The technology used to analyse Rembrandt's paintings could be invaluable for art historians. To name a few possibilities:

1) Use the data on the average Rembrandt to identify unknown paintings as belonging to Rembrandt (or not).
2) Compare the data on the average Rembrandt to data on the average contemporary Whatever Other Painter to see in what ways the grand master was really unique.
3) Compare average styles over time to see what developments took place.
4) Compare average styles per location to see what developments took place.

I would, for example, really like to know, would like to see quantified, how the faces Rembrandt painted were different from those painted by other Dutch seventeenth century masters, sixteenth century predecessors, or eighteenth century followers. Or to know what styles Rembrandt may have borrowed from sources that are not so apparent at first glance. To answer such questions a huge database of paintings from a huge number of artists would have to be analysed in the same way as the work of Rembrandt.  

Fortunately the ING thinks it's important to bring innovation to culture, so it should be a matter of time before they sponsor such a project. 

dinsdag 8 september 2015

Digital Humanities: From Source Criticism to Tool Criticism *

The political history of the county of Holland of the first half of the sixteenth century is rather well documented. There was a lively correspondence between the president of the Council of Holland Holland in The Hague, Gerrit van Assendelft , and the regent and stadtholder in Brussels. It is one of those coincidences of history that just because because stadtholder Anton van Lalaing resided in Brussels frequently (and not in the Hague), we have these sources at our disposal. This ritch correspondence however, does place the historian, like the younger version of myself ten years ago, in a difficult position. By only looking through the eyes of Van Assendelft at history the image gets distorted. His correspondence is biased by his personal visions on friends, enemies, relatives, and personal interests. Other opinions and visions are hardly available and when they are, for example when Van Assendelft was accused of corruption, heresy and nepotism, it is often difficult for the historian to assess which source is 'right'. Every student of history therefore is trained in a decent source criticism and to approach the sources related to his/her subject as objectively as posible. Of course there are few people who would claim they can approach a document completely objectively. Everyone is shaped by his/her own time, location and surroundings and develops sympathy/antipathy towards his/her subject.

So far nothing new. A good historian will always look at his/her sources critically and be aware that perspectives, including those of him/herself, are subject to change. What is less obvious, and what people seem to be only aware of to a small extend, is that tools for digital historical research also are far from objective. Just like a historian a tool gathers data and uses that to provide a synthesis/answer/visualisation. Just like a historian tools are filled with preconceptions/asumptions that can heavily influence the results of research. [1] If a tool always choses for a certain probability, for example that everyone without an exact date of birth always lived before the twentieth century, this can be a useful filter for one research question, but could have large and unwanted repercussions for the other. This realisation has the necessary consequences: every tool a historian uses should be criticised like a fellow historian, or even as a (sometimes very sloppy) co-author or student-assistent. This means that all choices which were made when developing a tool should be made explicit, and that ideally the complex algorithms which form the core of a tool should be understandable for the person using it. There are very few historians however, who have the necesary technical expertise, at least that of a bachelor in computer science, at their disposal to truly understand the finer nuances of computer code.

The question then is what could be done to breach the gap between the historian and technology. The most simple answer of course would be that the historian also must become a computer scientist  [2] or the other way around. Even though in the future there hopefully will be more of such hybrid academics than now, it is unlikely that we will have thousands of such people in the near future. One of my history teachers at University once said: 'A historian needs to be an amateur in every field,' Maybe it is enough to become an amateur in computer science as well. Traditionally, historians become amateurs in the fields of law, ancient languages, geography, archival science, art history, psychology, codicology and sociology. Computer science could simply be added to this list. Just like the other fields of study, computer science is an aid d to interpret all of the available data correctly.

It still is an open question what level of amateurism in computer science is acceptable to use digital tools wisely. Since digital humanities is a still emerging field this question knows many answers. Historians have used methods from other fields to various degrees over the centuries. The historian of a hundred years ago could not have predicted that statistics is now a widely accepted skill to analyse historical material and that Latin is becoming obsolete in many curriculi. I would say that necessary and (for now) sufficient conditions to use digital tools properly, are: 1) the availability of a detailed documentation of the choices made by the computer scientist, and 2) an understanding of how a computer scientist works and why he/she had to make certain choices. Or in other words: to a certain extend we need to master the languages of a computer scientist passively, which is also the level of how much historians grasp most other fields.  I read medieval French, have a basic knowledge of the work of the sociolologist Bourdieu, and I know what the legal terms mean in medieval verdicts. I would however never be able to speak medieval French (or even decent modern French), have no knowledge to be able to criticise Bourdieus work and have no clue if a medieval verdict is in line with how justice was applied in general in that time ... and I get away with it.

To graps how a tool works, historians therefore should not necessarily be able to convert a text to linked data, but should be able to grasp to a basic extend how this process works and what RDF triples are. This would entail a cultural change, in which tools are not only used as household appliances. but as the product of another academic field, that need to be approached critically before you can use them. Often historians stop at asking themselves how a tool can help them to answer their questions, while the importance of knowledge of how a tool is built and can be approached eludes them. Without such knowledge there can be no decent tool criticism,  which will become increasingly important besides the familiar source criticism.


* This is a (bad) translation and slight adaption of my blog from 24 June 2014

[1]See the important article of B. Rieder and T. Röhle: 'Digital methods: Five
challenges' .in: D. M. Berry ed., Understanding Digital Humanities (2012) 67–84.
[2] Throughout the text computer scientist can also be read as computationl linguist.