18
   

Is History an art or a science?

 
 
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 09:58 am
This question arose on another thread. My take is that history is a science, because historical claims can be falsifiable. Maybe that's too wide an understanding of science.

As I see it, one aspect of the question touches upon the scientific (or lack of) nature of what some call the 'social sciences' such as economy, sociology or indeed history. These study the intellectual, social, cultural dimensions of us human beings. Can these stuff be studied scientifically by human beings themselves? Or are we incapable of thinking rationally about ourselves?

Another aspect is about the constraints linked to studying the past: no experimentation is possible. That would plead for history NOT being a science. Yet paleontology is also studying the past and cannot experiment, and is generally seen as a science. Also, there should be a scientific way to study the past, including in its biological but also social dimensions. IOW if history is not a science, we should make it one.
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Type: Question • Score: 18 • Views: 7,788 • Replies: 154

 
joefromchicago
 
  4  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 12:52 pm
@Olivier5,
Olivier5 wrote:

This question arose on another thread. My take is that history is a science, because historical claims can be falsifiable.

No, historical claims are not falsifiable. At their most trivial, they are verifiable, but that's about all. There's a big difference there.

For instance, if I said "President Abraham Lincoln was born in Idaho in 1936," that would be manifestly false, but pointing out that statement's falsity is not the same thing as falsifying it, and it's certainly not the same thing as what scientists do when they set out to test another scientist's results. At best, I can verify that the facts are wrong, but then the practice of history isn't just the recitation of facts.

Falsification, which Popper took to be the sine qua non of science, involves conducting experiments independently and coming up with the same results. If the results are replicable, the hypotheses are confirmed. If not, they are falsified. In Popper's view, that is what distinguishes genuine sciences, like physics, from pseudo-sciences, like psychology.

Historical interpretations are not falsifiable because they are not replicable. If I said "the tariff issue was the main cause of the US Civil War," that claim can be refuted, but it can't be falsified.

Olivier5 wrote:
IOW if history is not a science, we should make it one.

How would you suggest making history into a science?
Olivier5
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 01:19 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
For instance, if I said "President Abraham Lincoln was born in Idaho in 1936," that would be manifestly false, but pointing out that statement's falsity is not the same thing as falsifying it

Why not? There is empirical evidence that Lincoln lived in the 19th century. Using this evidence to prove false the claim that he was born in 1936 is equivalent to falsifying that claim.
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 01:23 pm
I think of it as a continuing study.
Olivier5
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 01:24 pm
@ossobuco,
Science is also a form of study, though.
joefromchicago
 
  2  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 01:33 pm
@Olivier5,
Olivier5 wrote:
There is empirical evidence that Lincoln lived in the 19th century. Using this evidence to prove false the claim that he was born in 1936 is equivalent to falsifying that claim.

Because you wouldn't be "falsifying" that claim in the sense that Popper used to describe science. At most, you would be verifying it (i.e. checking it for accuracy) rather than falsifying it (i.e. checking to see whether the claims hold up under scientific testing). To claim that "falsify" is the same in both contexts is to fall into the fallacy of equivocation.
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 01:53 pm
@Olivier5,
Yes. And a study can be one's scientific investigation of some question. But all studies don't add up to scientifically tested data > proof just because they consider a question and show a result.

I suppose I think of History as ongoing investigation/study rather than as a science, though there will be some of that does use scientific methodology/is science.
Olivier5
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 02:12 pm
@joefromchicago,
I have read pretty much all Karl Popper and never found a doubt in there that social sciences including history can be sciences. He only took aim with anti-scientific historicism. I mean, he wrote an entire book about historicism and never uses the argument that history is not a science. On the contrary. I just re-read the intro to the book (poverty of historicism, browsable on google books) and he speaks of trying to help social sciences overcome some of their difficulties. He uses the term 'social sciences' several time in that intro... Similarly he took issue with Freudian psychology but not with the science of psychology in principle.
Olivier5
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 02:23 pm
@ossobuco,
Quote:
But all studies don't add up to scientifically tested data > proof just because they consider a question and show a result.

So science would be about testing theories in controlled experiments. The problem is that not many domains of study can be defined as such. Eg paleontologists cannot experiment with a real T rex for instance. I mean, everything about the past really. Including not only paleontology or archeology but also large swaths of geology. Even astronomy is not experimenting much, rather it is observing whatever is observable... The 'model' of experimental science is not in my humble view applicable to all sciences.
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 03:14 pm
@Olivier5,
Olivier5 wrote:

I mean, he wrote an entire book about historicism and never uses the argument that history is not a science.

Did he say that history is a science?

That aside, Popper isn't the last word on the subject. I brought him up because you have been using "falsifiability" as the test for whether history is a science, and Popper is the one who came up with that test. That doesn't mean that Popper gets to decide whether history is a science or not, although I'd argue that, regardless of what he may have said on the subject, history doesn't qualify as a science even under Popper's definition.

Olivier5 wrote:
He uses the term 'social sciences' several time in that intro.

You assume that he placed history under the category of social science.
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 03:39 pm
@Olivier5,
I consider that paleontology fits in science departments from it's study of whatever bones' surroundings, and dating involve with that, plus testing of what is in the bones and so on, and the observations of what bones showed up where in timelines. I never took a course in it, but wished I did; also never took geology and wish I did. My geography knowledge is on the childlike side, from interest in places in a fairly wide sense.

Farmerman will likely have views on all this.

On the other side, scire in latin is the infinitive "to know", and they probably rattled on back in the day about how you can know something (or are just guessing, ala Frank).
Frank Apisa
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 03:42 pm
I consider "social science" to be to "science"...

...what the Holy Roman Empire was to "holy", "Roman" and "Empire."
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 03:47 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
For instance, if I said "President Abraham Lincoln was born in Idaho in 1936," that would be manifestly false, but pointing out that statement's falsity is not the same thing as falsifying it, and it's certainly not the same thing as what scientists do when they set out to test another scientist's results.

But you can go to the Library of Congress and find press coverage of Lincoln's first election, his first term as president, his re-election in 1864, his death in 1865, and the dedication of Lincoln Highway in 1913 --- all of which happened before 1936. To be sure, this evidence may not convince birther-type hecklers. But to reasonable people, it would constitute a refutation of the claim that "Lincoln was born in Idaho in 1936". The claim, then, is indeed refutable --- and refuted --- in the very sense that has become a standard test of "scientificness" since Karl Popper.
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 03:52 pm
An aside - one of my friends, while she was still at the university, did the drawings for some paleontology work, or book, I forget, since she also did the drawings for a book re neuroanatomy. What I remember is that I had a touch of envy.

We're still friends.

I hadn't even started to copy Broom Hilde comics yet.
Olivier5
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 03:54 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
You assume that he placed history under the category of social science.

Yes. Based on the following and other quotes from the intro, and also from remembering the book, I do think Popper was by and large talking about history.

' I mean by 'historicism' an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the “rhythms” or the “patterns”, the “laws” or the “trends” that underlie the evolution of history. '
--Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, p. 3. (Emphasis as in the original)
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 03:56 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
At most, you would be verifying it (i.e. checking it for accuracy) rather than falsifying it (i.e. checking to see whether the claims hold up under scientific testing).

As I remember my Logik der Forschung, Popper uses the term "verification" to mean "proving that a claim is true"and "falsification" to mean "proving that a claim is false". Checking the primary literature and discovering all the evidence that Lincoln lived and died well before 1937 proves that the claim is false.
Olivier5
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 04:20 pm
@ossobuco,
Yes, in the end its about our capacity to know something empirically founded about the past. The past is a huge part of reality, when you think of it. It would be sad to give up on knowing what there is to be known about it in a scientific manner. To me, whether the empirical clues are made of bones or stones or papyrus is not important. What's more important is to proceed from a combination of rationality (no magic thinking, expectation of plausibility under natural laws) AND observation (a patient collection and interpretation of facts or artifacts).
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 04:20 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:

But you can go to the Library of Congress and find press coverage of Lincoln's first election, his first term as president, his re-election in 1864, his death in 1865, and the dedication of Lincoln Highway in 1913 --- all of which happened before 1936. To be sure, this evidence may not convince birther-type hecklers. But to reasonable people, it would constitute a refutation of the claim that "Lincoln was born in Idaho in 1936". The claim, then, is indeed refutable --- and refuted --- in the very sense that has become a standard test of "scientificness" since Karl Popper.

I disagree. That Lincoln was born in Kentucky in 1809 is a historical fact, but it's not "history," just as the fact that neon is one of the noble gases is a chemical fact, but it's not "chemistry." Lincoln's birth date is simply an isolated fact, which can either be verified or refuted. "Falsification," in a Popperian sense, involves more than merely checking the almanac.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 04:23 pm
@Olivier5,
Olivier5 wrote:

Yes. Based on the following and other quotes from the intro, and also from remembering the book, I do think Popper was by and large talking about history.

' I mean by 'historicism' an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the “rhythms” or the “patterns”, the “laws” or the “trends” that underlie the evolution of history. '
--Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, p. 3. (Emphasis as in the original)

And that convinces me that Popper wouldn't (or shouldn't) have included history as a social science. After all, history doesn't attempt to predict anything. Of course, Popper was very precise with his terms, and if he had meant to write about the "poverty of history," he wouldn't have used the idiosyncratic term "historicism."
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Mon 19 Jan, 2015 04:26 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:

As I remember my Logik der Forschung, Popper uses the term "verification" to mean "proving that a claim is true"and "falsification" to mean "proving that a claim is false". Checking the primary literature and discovering all the evidence that Lincoln lived and died well before 1937 proves that the claim is false.

I'm using the term "verification" in the common, everyday manner, not in the specialized, Popperian manner. In any event, for Popper, "verification" was far less important than "falsification," because, whereas a falsified empirical claim was always false, a verified empirical claim could only ever be provisionally true.
 

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