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SEL8688 : Data and Truth

  • Offered for Year: 2022/23
  • Module Leader(s): Professor Jennifer Richards
  • Lecturer: Professor Bernhard Malkmus, Professor David Rose, Dr James Cummings, Dr Laura Kirkley
  • Teaching Assistant: Dr Tiago Sousa Garcia
  • Owning School: English Lit, Language & Linguistics
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 2 Credit Value: 10
ECTS Credits: 5.0


As the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey argued, science seeks to explain what it explores, while the humanities seeks to understand what it explores critically, while also involving faculties such as empathy, imagination, emotional intelligence, aesthetic sensibilities. This Masters module, co-taught by colleagues from Literary studies and Philosophy, is aimed at Computing Science students with a broad interest in different approaches to understanding data and truth from a humanities perspective. The module will offer an overview of ‘Theories of Knowing’ in philosophy, and an introduction to approaches in contemporary thought to knowledge production and power, and to historical ideas about ‘truth’ and their critique in literary texts from the Renaissance to the present. It will explore how the humanities has dealt with datasets in the past and how it does so in the digital age. It will also explore how humanities deals with multiple, equally valid but contrasting pieces of evidence: humanists often work with incomplete data from a variety of sources to answer their questions, and make judgements by inferring from contextual knowledge. The humanities therefore often deal with qualitative problems that quantitative methodologies cannot satisfactorily solve. They address questions about life, identity, individuality, community, and ecology to which the exact sciences cannot provide exact answers; they are dealing with the messy work of negotiating a plurality of interpretations. Based on the rigour of collecting and collating historical data and the rigour of logics, the humanities seeks to approach an understanding of how certain knowledge formations (epistemes) emerged and the socio-economic power structures they were embedded in.

Outline Of Syllabus

1.       Introduction to the Humanities and Data: histories and critique
2.       Theories of Knowing (Philosophy)
3.       Knowledge production and power (Literary studies)

Week one will explore a range of questions to open up the module: What is historical truth? What is quantifiable about historical truth? Why do we need stories to translate scientific data into a social reality? In what ways does that translation constitute the basis of modern democracies? What does empirical truth become when we translate them into narratives?

Week two will introduce the students to a range of theories of Knowing, looking at positivism, interpretation, value, correspondence, coherentism and pragmatism with an eye on the distinction between information and knowledge.

Week three will explore introduce students to ideas about the relationship between knowledge and power in three different epochs: the Renaissance and the power structures of Objectivity; the Enlightenment and power structures of Subjectivity; Modernity and the power structures of Planetary Thinking: Heisenberg, Anthropocene scientists.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture61:006:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion821:0082:0030 hrs reading of primary texts 22 hrs study groups/seminar preparation 30 hrs research + writing
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching62:0012:00N/A
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

The lectures on this module provide a broad introduction to the topics covered each week; the seminars provide students with the opportunity to test their understanding of the texts set for the module, and to explore ideas and methods with the tutor and fellow students through task-based activities, in study groups and in small/whole group discussion. Students will be given guidance on the research and reading needed for seminar participation.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Report2A1002000 word report
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The students will write a report (2000 words) in stages, summarising and reflecting on what they have learned, and applying it to a case study/exploring it in an opinion piece. The stages of the assessment are:
1.       Identify concepts to discuss/quick list of relevant bibliography (10%)
2.       Write a short explanation/critical discussion of the concepts (30%, 600 words)
3.       Report on a contemporary case study/opinion piece using the concepts developed. (60%, 1200 words)

Reading Lists