History VS Science

History generally is written by the victors to justify their actions, to arouse patriotic fervour, and to suppress the legitimate claims of the vanquished. When no overwhelming victory takes place, each side writes self-promotional accounts of what really happened. English histories castigated the French, and vice versa; US histories until very recently ignored the de facto policies of lebensraum and genocide toward Native Americans; Japanese histories of the events leading to World War II minimize Japanese atrocities, and suggest that their chief purpose was altruistically to free East Asia from European and American colonialism; Poland was invaded in 1939, Nazi historians asserted, because Poland, ruthless and unprovoked, attacked Germany; Soviet historians pretended that the Soviet troops that put down the Hungarian (1956) and Czech (1968) Revolutions were invited in by general acclamation in the invaded nations rather than by Russian stooges; Belgian histories tend to gloss over the atrocities committed when the Congo was a private fiefdom of the King of Belgium; Chinese historians are strangely oblivious of the tens of millions of deaths caused by Mao Zedong's 'Great Leap Forward'; that God condones and even advocates slavery was repeatedly argued from the pulpit and in the schools in Christian slaveholding societies, but Christian polities that have freed their slaves are mostly silent on the matter; as brilliant, widely read and sober a historian as Edward Gibbon would not meet with Benjamin Franklin when they found themselves at the same English country inn, because of the late unpleasantness of the American Revolution. (Franklin then volunteered source material to Gibbon when he turned, as Franklin was sure he soon would, from the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to the decline and fall of the British Empire. Franklin was right about the British Empire, but his timetable was about two centuries early.)

These histories have traditionally been written by admired academic historians, often pillars of the establishment. Local dissent is given short shrift. Objectivity is sacrificed in the service of higher goals. From this doleful fact, some have gone so far as to conclude that there is no such thing as history, no possibility of reconstructing the actual events; that all we have are biased self-justifications; and that this conclusion stretches from history to all of knowledge, science included.


It is the responsibility of those historians with integrity to try to reconstruct that actual sequence of events, however disappointing or alarming it may be. Historians learn to suppress their natural indignation about affronts to their nations and acknowledge, where appropriate, that their national leaders may have committed atrocious crimes. They may have to dodge outraged patriots as an occupational hazard. They recognize that accounts of events have passed through biased human filters, and that historians themselves have biases. Those who want to know what actually happened will become fully conversant with the views of historians in other, once adversary, nations. All that can be hoped for is a set of successive approximations: by slow steps, and through improving self-knowledge, our understanding of historical events improves.

Something similar is true in science. We have biases; we breathe in the prevailing prejudices from our surroundings like everyone else. Scientists have on occasion given aid and comfort to a variety of noxious doctrines (including the supposed 'superiority' of one ethnic group or gender over another from measurements of brain size or skull bumps or IQ tests). Scientists are often reluctant to offend the rich and powerful. Occasionally, a few of them cheat and steal. Some worked - many without a trace of moral regret - for the Nazis. Scientists also exhibit biases connected with human chauvinisms and with our intellectual limitations. As I've discussed earlier, scientists are also responsible for deadly technologies - sometimes inventing them on purpose, sometimes being insufficiently cautious about unintended side-effects. But it is also scientists who, in most such cases, have blown the whistle alerting us to the danger.

Scientists make mistakes. Accordingly, it is the job of the scientist to recognize our weakness, to examine the widest range of opinions, to be ruthlessly self-critical. Science is a collective enterprise with the error-correction machinery often running smoothly. It has an overwhelming advantage over history, because in science we can do experiments. If you are unsure of the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris in 1814-15, replaying the events is an unavailable option. You can only dig into old records. You cannot even ask questions of the participants. Every one of them is dead.

But for many questions in science, you can rerun the event as many times as you like, examine it in new ways, test a wide range of alternative hypotheses. When new tools are devised, you can perform the experiment again and see what emerges from your improved sensitivity. In those historical sciences where you cannot arrange a rerun, you can examine related cases and begin to recognize their common components. We can't make stars explode at our convenience, nor can we repeatedly evolve through many trials a mammal from its ancestors. But we can simulate some of the physics of supernova explosions in the laboratory, and we can compare in staggering detail the genetic instructions of mammals and reptiles.


History is written from a perspective, science tries to reconstruct events.

Folksonomies: history science scientific method

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 The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Sagan , Carl and Druyan , Ann (1997-02-25), The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Ballantine Books, Retrieved on 2011-05-04
Folksonomies: science empiricism rationalism