Since last year, a half-dozen researchers have been having a debate: Should the humanities focus on replication? No, said Sarah de Rijcke and Bart Penders in Nature last August: “Resist calls for replicability in the humanities.” In the most recent piece on this subject, de Rijcke and Penders were joined by J. Britt Holbrook to again say “no.” Here, Rik Peels, Lex Bouter, and René van Woudenberg, who have been in the “yes” camp, respond.
In their recent contribution to the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) blog, entitled “The Humanities Do Not Need a Replication Drive,” Holbrook, Penders, and de Rijcke argue that two of us, namely Rik Peels and Lex Bouter, have been mistaken in defending the possibility and desirability of replication in the humanities. It seems to us, though, that they have crucially misunderstood us on a couple of points, so we would like to use this opportunity to clarify our position and respond to their objections.
Their main thesis is that “although replication might be possible in some (parts of) fields in the humanities, replicability is not obviously possible in all humanities fields.” The problem with this thesis is that it is perfectly compatible with everything we have argued. In fact, we wholeheartedly embrace this position ourselves. We argued that replication is possible and desirable in the humanities, not that all studies in the humanities should be replicated or even be replicable. There are at least two kinds of studies that come to mind for which replication does not seem to be an obvious desideratum:
- There are humanistic studies that are so wide-ranging in their scope and all encompassing in their sources – think of biographies – that replication of the study as a whole is neither possible nor desirable. Of course, this leaves plenty of room for replication of specific results within the biography in question, for instance, a controversial hypothesis regarding where the person at issue was born or whether she was steered to a particular course of action because she was influenced by, say, Marx’ doctrine of alienation.
- Moreover, there are some fields of the humanities that are not empirical but a priori and completely deductive. Here, we think of large parts of metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, meta-ethics, and so on. Since many studies in these fields do not involve gathering data, statistical analysis, and inductive or abductive lines of reasoning, it is not at all clear that replication in the regular sense of the word is possible for them. We agree that we could and should have been more explicit on this, and it seems to us that this takes away the main worry of Holbrook et al.
In the remainder of this article, we address three further worries that they raise. First, according to Holbrook et al, we require that replication in the humanities “meets all the criteria that have been identified for biomedical, natural and social science research.” They point out that “this is a strong requirement, suggesting that replication studies also need to use the same protocols, methods, and data as the original study.”
Fortunately, we require no such thing. We have argued that replication in the sciences on the one hand and in the humanities on the other is essentially the same thing: “to carry out a replication study is basically to do an independent repetition of an earlier study, answering the same study question by using the same or similar methods under the same or similar circumstances.” Unquestionably, what a replication study will exactly look like will differ from field to field and might even differ among various studies within a specific field.
Moreover, we deny expressis verbis that a replication study needs to use the same protocols, methods, and data as the original study, because we want to leave room for a so-called conceptual replication. The essence of a conceptual replication is that the protocol is not the same. In fact, we suggest that this is often preferable in the humanities.
Second, our opponents argue that diversity of views and arguments is actually a good thing and that our arguments are based on an empiricist and positivist epistemology. As to the latter point, we are not exactly sure what they have in mind here. However, let us nail our colors to the mast. We reject empiricism on its standard definition, because we believe in the possibility of a priori knowledge. And we reject positivist epistemology on its standard definition, because we believe there are many meaningful and knowable propositions that are neither tautological nor empirically verifiable or falsifiable, such as moral propositions. (For standard definitions of empiricism and positivism, see The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.) We fail to see how anything we say commits us to these problematic epistemological positions.
As to diversity of arguments, we agree that this can be a good thing. The more sound arguments for a position, the better. And: the more arguments on both sides of an issue, the better for identifying what the problems are and what is needed to resolve them. What is not a good thing though – not something to be pursued because it is deemed good in itself – is the existence of opposing answers backed up by various arguments to exactly the same question. It is better to find the right answer to a question or to find a set of right answers that are compatible to a question than to accept and even applaud a multitude of different competing answers to that question, at least when it comes to academic questions or hypotheses.
To deny this amounts to denying the value of the joint pursuit of truth and of knowing the truth, which is one of the core values of the humanities as one of us has argued elsewhere. Of course, pursuing the truth may not always be successful, for instance due to dearth of evidence, but it should at least be the aim of humanistic (as well as of scientific) inquiry.
Third and finally, they say that many humanistic studies do not allow of replication and not even of replicability because they rely on interpretation. This is a remarkable but, taken at face value, unconvincing statement. For any study in any field whatsoever relies on interpretation: interpretation of texts, interpretation of data, interpretation of figures and tables, and so on. One cannot engage in a replication study without performing acts of interpretation.
Also, why would a study that involves interpretation not be replicable? Unfortunately, they don’t say. However, interpretative studies surely seem to be replicable. For example, the claim that St. Augustine was influenced by the Gnostics has been confirmed time and again by repeated, and independent, studies of his work.
We conclude that the objections leveled by Holbrook et al fail and that our conclusion stands: for many empirical studies in the humanities, replication is both possible and desirable. But if we are right, then we should like to move on from possibility and desirability to actuality, that is, we should like to see a couple of crucial studies in the humanities replicated, so as to test what we have been arguing for.
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