History, Science

One damn thing after another: what’s the point of studying history?

The History Boys by Alan Bennett, a play and subsequently a film, deals with issues such as the importance of history.  Picture sourced from Wikipedia

My BA and my MA were both entitled ‘the history and philosophy of science’. This article could possibly be called ‘the philosophy of history and science’, and is my attempt to outline, very broadly speaking, why I think studying and writing history is so important. I consider myself very lucky to have found a pursuit which I enjoy, and which, hopefully, could provide me with a means of supporting myself in the future. As I immerse myself in the world of academic history I realise there’s a difference between learning history and doing it, as I suppose there must be in most disciplines; although there will normally be elements of both at any level of study, the ratio between the two will change. Now, the more I do history, the more I understand its importance to how we live our everyday lives. It has made me realise how knowledge of the past shapes how we think about the human world around us; everything we think we know about society, politics, and even our own interactions with other people is grounded in an understanding of what has gone before. It is important that people are trained with the necessary skills to research and communicate history. History is our best tool for understanding the human world, as science is our best tool for understanding the natural world, and, although dealing with different subject matters, they have much in common.

Both history and science, broadly construed, seek an objective truth about some aspect of the world through compiling and assessing different categories of empirical evidence. Science in all its forms is concerned with finding out some kind of truth about the physical world. Scientists may not be sure that they will ever reach true objectivity, given human limitations, but the general aim of scientific research is to discover the way the world is in a given field. We may only be getting closer and closer to an objective truth without ever actually reaching it, but at least there is some fact worth seeking. Historical research is similar. We know an event happened at some point in the past. People interacted, something was said, something was done; even though it may never be possible to recreate and understand what actually occurred, the historian, like the scientist, will do their best to piece together a narrative to explain the objective reality. Any attempt will necessarily be subjective and limited, but the better the approximation, the greater the ability to understand how that event shaped the the chain of causes and effects, affecting the human world down to the present. Instead of the natural phenomena which comprise the dataset of the sciences, the historical evidence gathered is in the form of human sources: documents, accounts, artefacts. The relationship of cause and effect is as important to the historian as it is to the scientist; how did events relate to one another? What caused any given event and what resulted from it? How, in short, did the past form the present? The scientist looks at the natural world in much the same way, examining the cause and effect relationships of physical events in an attempt to predict other events.

Both historians and scientists attempt to formulate hypotheses by which to better understand their data; in science this will grow, with testing and corroboration, to be called a theory, but in history a hypothesis will remain an explanatory tool for understanding a certain set of events and a limited few other situations in which the circumstances were similar. Both disciplines will use these hypotheses by projecting them back down the sequence of causes and effects which they are studying. The result is a retrodiction, like a prediction but backwards, applied to previous events instead of to the future, in an attempt to find a new explanation for a section of the cause and effect sequence which previously was not fully understood. Prediction and retrodiction are essentially just two species of the same practice: making extrapolations or interpolations from existing knowledge in order to speculate about the unknown. Science and history both make retrodictions, but only science can make predictions about future events (although see the late Isaac Asimov’s proposed discipline of ‘psycho-history’, as explored in his famous ‘Foundation’ novels, for a very sophisticated and well thought through idea about making predictions based on historical knowledge).

The key to this difference between history and science is the experimental method. It would be difficult to conceive of a way to test experimentally predictions made from historical hypotheses, although maybe in their application to real-world scenarios it would be interesting to see sociology doing for history what technology is often considered to do for science. The relationship between science and technology is not as straight-forward and linear as it was once believed to be (that science does the abstract thinking and creates the knowledge, and technology applies it); rather, technological development has frequently been instrumental in catalysing new scientific discoveries, providing physical tools, new questions, metaphors, and entire systems of thought. An entire field of scholarship exists researching these questions. However, it occurs to me that many of the observed interactions between science and technology, whether science provides something for technology to use or vice versa, could also be true of history and sociology.  Is sociology to history what technology is to science? Admittedly within these pairings, the boundaries between the two disciplines are often blurry, and it is not always easy, or even possible, to tell which one is which. Simply put, science is the study of nature, and technology the use of nature for human benefit. Also simply stated, history is the study of civilisation; could sociology be characterised as the use of knowledge about civilisation to benefit societies?

As the sciences explore the evidence of the senses, history investigates and augments memory. While science has to use the evidence of the senses to investigate the physical world, history employs memories and written sources to study the human sphere. Written sources are essentially delegated memories, thoughts and experiences committed to paper, recorded for posterity so that a memory of the specific thought or experience may be preserved. Both sources of evidence, sense data and memory data, are prone to error, and both history and science attempt to make their data as objective as possible. Science records observations, repeats experiments, makes measurements, seeks patterns and correlations, and generally tries to limit the impact of subjectivity on its data. History seeks to support written testimonies and living memories through assessment of more objective evidence, such as artefacts, structures, paintings or photographs. In this way error is reduced in both disciplines, and we arrive at approximations of the truths sought by scientists and by historians.

But as history, like science, can be used for any convenient purpose, good or bad, proper training is required to effectively use either. Of course it’s an oversimplification when a news story claims “scientists say…” or that “scientists have found…”. Equally, however, ‘history’ wields the same weight of rhetoric in the human world that ‘science’ does in the natural. Unqualified use of “historians say…” is just as vague and misleading. Our knowledge of science influences how we interact with the natural world. The history we learn when young can shape our expectations in certain situations and our prejudices or predispositions towards certain people. Writing the right history textbooks has been a key weapon in the propaganda arsenal of authoritarian regimes, because leaders have known that exposure to the facts they want to promote will encourage attitudes conducive to their maintaining power. This plays a crucial part in forming a national identity, or of mobilising a mass public to support a chosen cause. Some interesting examples of this can be found here. The writing of history reflects in many ways the values of the writers, such as a desire to justify the present by recourse to the past, or to identify important values and project them onto past events, thus creating a connection in the mind of the reader between their own time and what has come before. Supposedly academic conflicts over historical facts become political very quickly.

History is a method, an investigative tool, and it serves us well when we form our opinions of human situations rooted in past events. We must be wary, however, of attempts to pervert historical thinking as we must be wary of attempts to pervert scientific thinking; both are instruments of power, and, like doing scientific research, writing history can be a great responsibility. Because of the intricacies of the issues, and the weight of authority carried by accepted history, we need people trained not just in the learning of history, but in the complexities of how to research and communicate it. Someone has to write the history of the future.


8 thoughts on “One damn thing after another: what’s the point of studying history?

  1. Hi Michael

    Really a very well thought and well written post. Enjoyed it:o)

    All the best


    Posted by qolyehudi | 9 February, 2012, 8:34 pm
  2. Since writing this article, I read a very interesting blog article by Rebekah Higgitt, Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, which I would recommend reading if this topic interests you. :) Find it here: http://teleskopos.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/the-place-of-science-in-history-and-history-in-science/

    Posted by Michael Kay | 21 February, 2012, 7:44 pm
  3. Very interesting opinion. I agree, history is far more important and logical than most people give it credit. Some of those people studying the sciences seem to think that if it cannot be experienced first hand, then historians could easily be making it up. Not only this, but the hierarchy created by some scientists is equally misleading (the hierarchy stating that math is the most important, then physics, then chemistry, then biology, etc.) because it implies that everything can be explained through mathematics. I would like to think that there is more to life and people than math and chemistry and I think the unique historical development of different peoples can attest to this.

    I have seen scientific methods of studying history, these mostly involve the reproducing of the situation. In one, a group of people tried to test the logistics of how many people could have stabbed Julius Caesar. The verdict, because of the fumbling of people around the body, was that it would have been a group of 5-10 people rather than one per stab wound. Another tested if it were possible for one shot to produce the injuries that were seen in the Kennedy Assassination. Though these are not as easily proven and tested as some scientific studies, they do serve as some form of reference point and concrete, factual, backing to a hypothesis.

    Again, thanks for the post, it was very interesting and refreshing.

    Posted by thinkingforourselves | 22 February, 2012, 2:25 am
    • Hi, thanks for your thoughts! I think the philosophical system you refer to is ‘logical positivism’, the idea that mathematics is the basis of our progressive knowledge-base, popular through the early to mid c20th, but less broadly entertained these days. Even notions of ‘progress’ in science are now also problematic; see another interesting blog post from Rebekah Higgitt, mentioned above, here: http://teleskopos.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/a-conversation-about-science-and-progress/

      A closer study of methodology, and indeed history, reveals more complicated interactions between disciplines; I feel attempts to reduce all knowledge to mathematics and statistics, possibly very attractive to mathematicians, don’t tend to yield such useful knowledge in the humanities. The historical experiments you mention are interesting, although I’m sure establishing the scenario actively must be very difficult. Nevertheless, the very act of trying to recreate such an event, or, to use another example, attempting to recreate an experiment using historically accurate scientific apparatus and techniques, causes us to look at the event in a new way, and can stimulate new thoughts and insights, and generate new questions and research avenues. So it can be quite beneficial for historians to get a little ‘hands-on’ at times, especially with objects and artefacts.

      Posted by Michael Kay | 22 February, 2012, 12:25 pm
  4. Hey Michael,
    I really enjoyed the post. I, like many within the humanities, find the disproportionate amount of credit given to the sciences over the arts to be troubling and frustrating. The idea that studying the natural world is much more important than studying human society is ridiculous. A group of us in the Arts department in Manchester are putting together a podcast and the first episode addresses questions concerning the importance of the arts and the problems facing arts research in Britain today.

    One of the main problems I find for historical methodology is the need to ascertain personal motivations that are often outside the reach of researchers. While there are some that would disagree with the importance of individual actors, I feel that understanding the reasons for major decisions would help us understand the events that followed. As an intellectual historian studying intellectualism and politics, these issues are especially relevant.

    Posted by Victoria Glass | 29 February, 2012, 4:41 pm
  5. Hi Victoria, thanks for this! I agree, and I feel that history offers us one of the best ways to study human society. I think it is important where possible to understand personal motivations, although these can often be tricky to pin down. Contextualising helps, of course, and I have noticed a trend in some recent history of science to apply a certain psychoanalytical bent to key historical actors, but nothing beats a good diary or journal. If we are to optimise our own usefulness to historians of the future, then maybe out of sympathy for our future coleagues/descendents, we should all keep diaries…

    Posted by Michael Kay | 1 March, 2012, 12:29 am

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