Monday, 18 February 2013

History isn't a Science

So, I went to a Dawkins thing in Oxford last Friday, and one thing he did really stuck with me. Not in a good way, either, so I thought I'd share it with you guys, and see if anyone on the internet had any similar views.

He was doing a "conversation" event (an informal discussion rather than a debate) with Stephen Law, a philosopher. (You can find his blog here, and it's well worth a read). At one point, Dawkins said [paraphrased] "I'm not really sure what philosophers do. I can't conceive of a problem that cannot be solved with science, but can be solved with just the mind". Law replied with quite a standard philosophical example "If my mother's cousin's son is also my auntie's nephew's brother, can he also be my grandma's niece's son?" Or something. The point is, you solve this question using just reasoning (and maybe a pen and paper), from your armchair. No measurements, observations, or "science" required. That, in a nutshell, is philosophy.

"Aha," said Dawkins, "But that's science!"

And Law said "Well, no, I didn't do an experiment. That's philosophy"

And Dawkins said "Well, no, that's the scientific method: looking at the facts, reasoning things out in a systematic way".

This innocuous little exchange led me to put my finger on something that'd been bothering me for some time. Scientists are right: the scientific method is incredibly important, and based on logic and reason. But it's more than just logic and reason, it's a whole system of hypotheses and null hypotheses and predictions and tests. Those are what make science work, right? A theory has to be testable. Not necessarily in a laboratory: to take a common example, evolution cannot really be "shown" in a lab (well, it can, but whatever), but the theory makes predictions, such as the ages of certain fossils. And these are then found to be right, so we accept the theory (for now, while making more predictions and testing those). If those predictions were wrong, then the theory would be falsified (disproved) and we'd have to build another one.

That is the scientific method.

However, not all logical pursuits require this kind of stringent testing. Dawkins himself in that talk admitted that the interpretation of, say, Romeo and Juliet did not require "the scientific method", but I'm interested in the subjects that fall down the gap between obviously scientific and obviously artistic: specifically history and archaeology.

In history, for example, we base our work on evidence. We look at the available material, usually written down by someone a long time ago, and we ask it questions: "Is that likely?"; "Could the author have really known that?"; "Did someone else say anything different?". We compare sources, and (using a theoretical framework, made explicit in lots of history texts) we assemble a picture of what happened, when and why.

In archaeology, we often go further and use explicitly scientific techniques. Just look at last week's post explaining stable isotope analysis. No one would doubt the techniques and methods employed by archaeologists owe a great deal to science.

However (and this is the really important however), these subjects are not sciences. They are not using the scientific method. They are applying reason and logic in a structured way, but they do not have the same aims as science. Science is answering fundamentally scientific questions: "What is this made of?"; "How does that process work?"; "What are the laws governing this system?"

Archaeology and history are answering fundamentally humanistic (using the traditional philosophical definition, meaning interested in humans and the human experience) questions: "Who was this person?"; "What did this community eat?"; "What was the effect of that belief on this government?" 

These two often overlap, but it's important to recognise that they are not the same.

So, when a scientist like Dawkins (or Peter Atkins, or whoever) says that, just by using reason and logic, we are using the scientific method, they claim all such subjects as a science. And that damages these subjects. In the last half century history and archaeology underwent major theoretical changes. These focused a great deal on the scientific method, and whether or not it was what the discipline needed. For archaeology, it prompted processualism (basically the belief that archaeology was a science), and the belief that there really were definite answers that we only lacked the methodology to find. Archaeologists therefore tried long and hard to find and articulate the underlying natural laws that govern archaeology. You know what they ended up with? Things like "If someone has been knapping flint, we can expect to find small shards of flint in the soil, unless the area was cleaned really well". These have been derogatorily called "Mickey Mouse" laws, and it's not hard to see why.

Unsurprisingly, processualism was a bit of a failure (though it did help modernise the discipline, and certainly led to some great research). We didn't find the universal truths we were looking for, and people began to be disillusioned by the whole scientific approach.

This disillusionment happened around the same time (prompted, I assume, by current events: thanks, Cold War!) across the humanities and social sciences. You know what it led to? Postmodernism. Postmodernism which in history and archaeology manifests as a denial of any kind of historical truth. Nothing is true; everything is an opinion. And if everything is subjective, why try to write a true account of anything?

Again, postmodernism forced us to look at our prejudices, and to try to make our theoretical frameworks explicit, and those are all good things, but it's also been reasonably damaging to our fields. Some parts of archaeology and history have lost whole decades to postmodernism (phenomenology, anyone?) , decades we could have been using to do some actual research, instead of worrying about how science didn't work and that there was no such thing as truth.

So back off Dawkins! And back off, scientists. The scientific method is more than just reason and logic, and we can use reason and logic without being a science. Stop claiming otherwise, or you condemn the entire humanities to interpretive nonsense. 

1 comment:

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