Simulation criticism

The past years I have been involved in a large-scale collaboration, called the European Time Machine ( In this project, there has been a lot of talk about what the Humanities have to gain from modelling large diachronic datasets. In our discussions, especially the term “simulation criticism” has gained traction. Many of us realised that the Humanities lack a language to speak about or engage with “simulations”, which are still fairly uncommon in that field.

I know that many among you are familiar with the kind of simulations that are common in cultural evolution or agent-based modelling, but I would be very grateful for references to scholarly work in critical/cultural theory that deals with simulations from a real Humanities perspective. Is “simulation criticism” even a good term for this discourse of thing or do you see good alternatives? Thanks!


I think maybe Peter Turchin’s work might be of interest.

To me the concept “simulation criticism” reads as a method to criticize simulations, as with tool/source criticism. What I think you’re referring to is to use simulations to critically question/probe/think through processes or hypotheses put forth in the humanities. Do they hold logically, or are we dealing with very improbable events that in the end still happened? I think some of the points that Nassim Taleb raises in his book Black Swan can serve as input to think of ways to simulate in a humanities perspective, which often has a strong focus on the particular.


If people have a problem with grasping and discussing about the models and operations of a simulation then I’d say that is a problem of “simulation literacy”. Like Melvin says, “simulation criticism” would be the apt term if they wanted to critically interrogate a or all simulations. Wouldn’t be the first time humanists jump straight from non-understanding to criticizing :wink:


I don’t know about any papers that deal with simulations “from a real Humanities perspective” as you say, but this article by Paul Smaldino ‘Models Are Stupid, and We Need More of Them’ might be the kind of article you’re looking for. It embraces the stupidity of simulation models and argues that their stupidity is exactly why they are so useful.


I believe this is a huge topic in philosophy of science and all kinds of epistemological research. But this is mainly philosophers looking at “hard” science simulations. Does anybody know examples of simulations in literary/cultural history context? It’s not your usual DH topic, I think.

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I remember reading a agent-based modelling paper in DHQ and looking for it, I found another one:

  1. Michael Gavin (2014). Agent-Based Modeling and Historical Simulation.
  2. Belinda Roman (2013). An Agent-based Model for the Humanities.

Good chance that you already know these ones, but I thought I’d list them anyway.

I think the discourse on simulation is just the discussion of simulation as a method, which would make it methodology, not criticism.


Thanks, these are very useful references!

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