Now Read This: A Thought Experiment

MRILet’s say that we believe we can learn something more about what literary critics call “authorial style” or “genre” by quantitative work. We want to say what that “more” is. We assemble a community of experts, convening a panel of early modernists to identify 10 plays that they feel are comedies based on prevailing definitions (they end in marriage), and 10 they feel are tragedies (a high born hero falls hard). To test these classifications, we randomly ask others in the profession (who were not on the panel) to sort these 20 plays into comedies and tragedies and see how far they diverge from the classifications of our initial panel. That subsequent sorting matches the first one, so we start to treat these labels (comedy/tragedy) as “ground truths” generated by “domain experts.” Now assume that I take a computer program, it doesn’t matter what that program is, and ask for it to count things in these plays and come up with a “recipe” for each genre as identified by our experts. The computer is able to do so, and the recipes make sense to us. (Trivially: comedies are filled with words about love, for example, while tragedies use more words that indicate pain or suffering.) A further twist: because we have an unlimited, thought-experiment budget, we decide to put dozens of early modernists into MRI machines and measure the activity in their brains while they are reading any of these 20 plays. After studying the brain activity of these machine-bound early modernists, we realize that there is a distinctive pattern of brain activity that corresponds with what our domain experts have called “comedies” and “tragedies.” When someone reads a comedy, regions A, B and C become active, whereas when a person reads tragedies, regions C, D, E, and F become active. These patterns are reliably different and track exactly the generic differences between plays that our subjects are reading in the MRI machine.

So now we have three different ways of identifying – or rather, describing – our genre. The first is by expert report: I ask someone to read a play and she says, “This is a comedy.” If asked why, she can give a range of answers, perhaps connected to plot, perhaps to her feelings while reading the play, or even to a memory: “I learned to call this and other plays like it ‘comedies’ in graduate school.” The second is a description, not necessarily competing, in terms of linguistic patterns: “This play and others like it use the conjunction ‘if’ and ‘but’ comparatively more frequently than others in the pool, while using ‘and’ less frequently.” The last description is biological: “This play and others like it produce brain activity in the following regions and not in others.” In our perfect thought experiment, we now have three ways of “getting at genre.” They seem to be parallel descriptions, and if they are functionally equivalent, any one of them might just be treated as a “picture” of the other two. What is a brain scan of an early modernist reading comedy? It is a picture of the speech act: “The play I’m reading right now is a comedy.”

Now the question. The first three acts of a heretofore unknown early modern play are discovered in a Folger manuscript, and we want to say what kind of play it is. We have our choice of either:

• asking an early modernist to read it and make his or her declaration

• running a computer program over it and rating it on our comedy/tragedy classifiers

• having an early modernist read it in an MRI machine and characterizing the play on the basis of brain activity.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you can only pick one of these approaches. Which one would you pick, and why? If this is a good thought experiment, the “why” part should be challenging.

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One Comment

  1. Michael Witmore
    Posted October 1, 2015 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    It is time that I answered my own question. The answer is, you should choose whatever is easiest, since it doesn’t matter which approach you pick — they are all functionally equivalent.

    The “why” part is tricky because to get at it properly you need to change the question. The question cannot really be, “Which method would you pick to get a more accurate result?” Accuracy is not the point. Interpretability is really the key, and for that, you could choose the option that best suits your professional training. (I myself would not want to try to interpret the MRI results.)

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