Leiden University - Pre-University College ▪ 8 December 2013 ▪ Pascal Gunsch
THE SCIENCE OF HISTORY: SHOULD HISTORY BE CONSIDERED SCIENCE? PHILADELPHIAN REPORTER FRANKLIN P. JONES (1908 – 1980),1 talking about history, once said: ‘Perhaps nobody has changed the course of history as much as historians.’ This quote is rather ambiguous; either Jones referred to history being, if at all, a vague form of science based on historian’s interpretation rather than logic truths and empirical data, or he talked about the influences studying history has on you, me and society in general. But what is history? And may it be considered science?
So, does that make Herodotus and history scientific? Science is all about acquiring knowledge, by two means: asking the right questions and providing plausible answers to those questions. But what makes a question ‘right’ and an answer ‘plausible’? ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS AND PROVIDING PLAUSIBLE ANSWERS Science can be defined as ‘the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.’4 The way scientist do their research is known as the scientific method. The scientific method prescribes that a scientist should first carefully and accurately observe, identify and describe a phenomenon. In order to investigate the cause of the phenomenon, a research question should be formulated, as well as a speculative answer to the research question. This speculative answer is known as the hypothesis. Next, one has to think of experiments of which the predicted results should prove the hypothesis. After conducting those experiment, a conclusion has to be drawn from the results that either confirms, modifies or rejects the hypothesis. If the hypothesis is rejected, it has to be replaced and new experiments are conducted. Take for example olive oil’s inability to mix with water. Suppose you want to know why they don’t mix (research question). Your hypothesis could be ‘olive oil is less dense than water and therefore they don’t mix’. After conducting experiments, in which olive oil is added to water, and the relative densities of the fluids are measured, you conclude that olive oil is less dense and that the experiments confirm your hypothesis.
THE HISTORY OF STUDYING HISTORY The word ‘history’ is derived from Ancient Greek ‘historia’ meaning ‘inquiry’ or ‘knowledge acquired by investigation’.2 This term, coined by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 – 425 BCE),3 referred to his way of investigation: he systematically collected evidence from the sources available at that time, and tested them on their accuracy, and analysed them to write and publish an acceptable evidence-based account of what had happened during the Persian Wars. This way of approaching history resulted in many modern scholars calling Herodotus ‘The Father of History’. However, the same publication gave rise to another name: ‘The Father of Lies’. Herodotus was superstitious and he wasn’t that critical, blending facts with legends and myths. Furthermore, his description of the conflict between his country, Greece, and the barbarian Persians is far from unbiased and objective. Despite the fact-myth cocktail and the lack of objectiveness in his works, Herodotus was the first, and certainly not the last, who tried to find out how and why things happened. ▪1▪
Using experiments scientists want to find out cause-and-effect relations, by changing one particular variable and observing/measuring the results. Furthermore, experiments are replicable, meaning that anyone doing the experiment the same way should come to (approximately) the same results. THE SCIENCE OF PRACTISING SCIENCE Scientists have followed the scientific method and drawn conclusions from the experiments. In the next step, using a process called induction, they try to generalise the results of their experiments, in this case implying that ‘fluids that are less dense than water don’t mix with water.’ Then, scientists analyse and criticise the experiment and ask themselves new questions, such as ‘why does ethanol, which is less dense than water, dissolve in water?’ In following experiments (and many generations of scientists and new knowledge), scientists discover that the forces holding water molecules together are much stronger than the forces bonding olive oil and water, and therefore water prefers to stay bonded to itself and won’t mix. On the contrary, the forces holding ethanol and water together are stronger than the forces holding water or ethanol together, which results in dissolving.5 Using deduction, the translation of a theory to a particular case, we can conclude that, sugar, for example, will dissolve in water, since the forces that bond water and sugar molecules are stronger than the forces that bond water or sugar molecules to itself. So the original hypothesis was wrong. Period. But this wrongness is what defines science: falsifiability. Scientific theories and hypotheses should always be falsifiable and disprovable. Science is not about finding truths, but about working towards the best possible explanation of phenomena by trial and error. This principle, known as Occam’s razor or parsimony,6 entails that any theory with the simplest explanation and fewest assumptions is the best theory. ▪2▪
Is the study of history included in this definition of science? Or does it exclude the historian’s approach of looking at the past? HISTORY AS A FORM OF SCIENCE History is defined as ‘the study of past events, particularly in human affairs.’7 However, history is also concerned with the history of discovering and understanding these ‘events’. There are some peculiarities which raise questions about the scientific value of the study of history. One of these is its reliability. While the natural scientist describes the unchangeable and inherent laws of nature, the historian relies on the experience and traces of others.8 The validity of his work is primarily determined by his ability to criticise the available sources and drawing logical conclusions from them. While E=mc2 doesn’t influence the scientist’s view on the subject, trans-Atlantic slave trade certainly influences historians and it is without doubt impossible for historians to remain objective. Historians can’t do replicable experiments with single-variable changes; they can’t do any experiments at all. The study of natural sciences is based on predictions and checking hypotheses; the study of history kind of works in reverse. Historians try to argue which causes could have led to certain events, instead of looking at how causes influence events. THE HISTORICAL METHOD Historians base their argumentation on three main sources: written sources, spoken sources and objects. These primary sources are the most reliable – after all, Anne Frank, for instance, didn’t write her diary to be published, nor did the Egyptians build their pyramids to be studied some four thousand years later. The study of these sources involves archaeological, biological, chronological, linguistic, and many other academic skills. All of these skills require understanding and application of the scientific method and critical thinking.9
After examining and criticising the available sources, historians make use of probably the most interdisciplinary toolbox on the planet to interpret the sources: a mix of anthropology, economics, geography, psychology, statistics and much more. Historians can, in some sense, be regarded as hobbyist puzzlers: they use all kind of pieces, some deformed, others from different puzzles, to make a picture that is as close to the original as possible. The third and last step in a historian’s investigation is the publication of his work in a prose-like book explaining the causes that led to certain events, and the implications those events have had on the society. This brings us the third point of critique: science has yielded machinery, computers, electricity, aeroplanes, space exploration, treatment of diseases, vaccination, genetic modification, better hygiene, and the list goes on quite some time. But what has history resulted in? HISTORY AND OUR STORY Over the course of the many thousands years humans have populated the Earth, humans have contributed to the way we live and think nowadays. When it is said that someone ‘makes history’, it isn’t just a metaphor: everyone makes history every day and the way we make it is determined by the history of us, as a person, and us, as a society. Through wars and revolutions and economic developments and scientific advances, we have gone from living as subject to nature’s brutal forces to living as the ones who can change nature instead, and we can thank history for this development. Or, when we see history as a science, we can thank science, but should we? The study of history is subject to the same rules as other fields of science, though it forms a good exception. The theories laid out by historians, are falsifiable hypotheses that attempt to explain how and why things happened the way they happened and the results of those events. ▪3▪
And though there are no ‘laws of history’, we can state that history seeks for the simplest, most parsimonious explanation of events, trying to complete the puzzle as good as possible. That’s how we defined science: acquiring knowledge by asking the right questions and providing plausible answers to those questions. History may lack the empirical, replicable and inductive parts of science, however, since there is no ‘Ultimate Guide to the Production of Science’, this doesn’t exclude history – science is defined by the questions you ask and the way you attempt to answer them. Pascal Gunsch REFERENCES 1 http://izquotes.com/author/franklin-p.-jones 2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History 3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herodotus 4 http://www.thefreedictionary.com/science 5 http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/chem00/che m00278.htm 6 http://www.mun.ca/biology/scarr/2900_Parsimony_A nalysis.htm 7 http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/ history 8 http://mrhoyestokwebsite.com/AOKs/History/Related %20Articles/Is%20History%20a%20Science.htm 9 http://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~palmquis/courses/hist orical.htm * All of the above mentioned sources were last retrieved 8 December 2013.