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Similarities and Differences between history and science.

  1. Mar 30, 2012 #1
    Here is a history lecture about Reinhold Niebur [2007] ....
    [whom I sure don't remember!! How many people have an 'ei' in one name and 'ie' in the other??] No reason to read the article regading this post.

    Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr


    One of his Niebur's main views is apparently the 'indecipherability of history' meaning what 'actually' happened in the past is usually not clear.

    I'm interested in any thoughts comparing the 'indecipherability of history' with a similar observation about, say the 'indecipherability" of say science .....say, physics. [If you want to rail against Neibur's other points please start your own discussion.]

    That sounds a lot like the situation in science to me! ....we have observables, outcomes, measurements, etc, but what is the underlying cause? How do we explain what 'actually' happened? Will different observers agree?

    One example would be the statistical evolution [which is 'indecipherable' regarding deterministic observables ] of the wave equation which results in deterministic outcomes...particles!! but with limits of 'locality'... limits on our abilty to measure. History has identifiable outcomes, too...Japan attacked Pearl Harbor; the US, Great Britain, Russia defeated the Axis powers; Alexander invaded Rome....not dispute there, but what is the explanation for the outcomes of those actions?? Historians have different views...just like quantum theory and general relativity offer differ insights regarding scientific phenomena....and like Feynman's 'sum over histories' provides different ideas about 'actuals'.

    Another example would be that whereas as Marxists and, say, western conservatives, and likely eastern philosophers, would almost always give different accounts of the same historical event, so too, do different observers in Einstein's relativity...based on different physical 'frames of reference' rather than political frames....they don't even agree on measures of space nor time....

    How good is 'history' versus 'science' for predicting outcomes ?

    Mathematicians deal with proof. Physicists deal with evidence. Historians deal with??

    Richard Feynman: "The truth always turns out to be simpler than you thought." ?? How about history?

    Wolfgang Pauli on hypothesizing the neutrino: I have created the ultimate sin, I have predicted the existence of a particle that can never be observed. [A historian gives an
    interpretation of the underlying causes of an historical event.??]

    Is any science 'settled'?? [as claimed, for example, by Al Gore] Is any history 'settled'??
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 30, 2012 #2


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    History is written and passed down by the winners of conflicts and by the elites of societies. It would be presumptuous of us to assume that we can determine which parts of the historical record are factual and trustworthy and which parts were crafted with the "fluff" and self-aggrandizement designed to make the "historians" and/or their sponsors look good. Even today, you can talk to people in the southern US who refer to the Civil War as the "War of Northern Aggression". Revisionism has probably been around forever, and will probably not go away.
  4. Mar 30, 2012 #3
    I like your point Naty1, I think it is a very good one. It is another piece of conventional wisdom that all history is written by the victors. The truth is that there are many serious historians working today whose methods, basing conclusions on the dispassionate observation of evidence, bear very powerful similarities to the methods of modern science. There are many places where science and history cross over, and scientists and historians inform each other’s work. Perhaps the key difference between the two disciplines comes in the matter of definitiveness. The reality is that both fields, once the dispassionate evidence has been analysed, require some level of interpretation, and all interpretation will be influenced by the particular experiences of the individual or individuals making that interpretation. But science does have this very important and powerful claim to universality. The laws of physics apply equally whatever culture you may belong to. But clearly, anyone’s understanding and interpretation of history is going to be heavily influenced, if not controlled, by their cultural background. The only dishonest history is the history that claims to be definitive. All history is a version. That is inevitable and unavoidable. Deeper understanding of the history emerges from engaging with that history, and that does not necessarily require agreeing with it.
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