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20 March 2008



Hey, can you say more about what makes history a science? (I'm not disagreeing at all, just wondering how that works for you.)

I also agree that literary criticism at this moment isn't a science and doesn't aim to be. In fact, you can find a lot of literary critics who believe at some weird level that science doesn't actually work because they object to it, even though--as Peter demanded I admit--they still believe in plasma TVs. But there are parts of it, the parts that are nearest to cultural studies maybe, investigations into power relationships for instance, that involve a kind of rigorous analysis and application of specific tests that always feels very science-y to me. Even though I'm pretty sure it isn't.

Marshall Perrin

what does it say about me that I'm resistant to calling this work scientific, even though it meets some of the criteria that logically fall out of my sorting process?

It says that the world is greyscale, and any attempt to enforce rigorous black-and-white binary distinctions is doomed to failure, and best not attempted in the first place? Science, like any complex phenomenon, isn't any one definite thing. To use a scientific analogy, science itself is more like a gene, variably expressed and constantly changing, than it is like an electron, constant and invariable and definite.

Parts of the study of history can be scientific, or at least science-like, without necessitating the whole thing be classified as a science. And the reverse is equally true: no one would disagree that astrophysics is a science (arguably even the oldest science?) and yet I spent most of the past week at work feeling more like an engineer than a scientist. OK, eventually we plan to do experiments with the hardware we're designing (and that will be science, by my definition) but right now we're just mucking about with source code and simulations, not learning anything real about the external universe. So that's not science, by my definition - but it is a required step on the way to doing science, so does it therefore count by extension? Which just takes us back to my original point: the universe is painted in shades of grey, all subtle and complex and interconnected. Binary classification schemes are just fables we humans tell to one another, in an attempt to fit the cosmos' infinite complexity into our limited conceptions. Fuzzy boundaries, indeed.

Jackie M.

The sorting into boxes comes first, and on an unconscious level; the outlining of criteria (experimentation, quantification, verification, general laws, predictive power, falsifiability, etc.) comes second, as a way of trying to make sense of the way you've sorted things.

Which is in and of itself a fine example of how Science is Actually Done.

Susan Marie Groppi

Jessie-- I don't actually think history is a science, although I think it has some methodological aspects that can be considered science-like. The research process in history is pretty different from most of the other humanities, as far as I can tell? (I'm actually hesitant to say more lest I expose myself as having wildly inaccurate views of how people do research in fields like literature or film studies.)

bill greene

I find the terms "hard-science" vs "soft-science" useful- The former includes all the disciplines that are based on mathematical calculations or are precisely measurable and test results are consistently reproducible. This would place most engineering and computer design with chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy and pharmacology. Quite differently, the soft-sciences may be studied and summary hypotheses reached in a logical even scientific way, but nothing dealing with human nature or human motivation has ever proven consistent or predictable in the manner that results in the "physical" sciences can be proven. History books demonstate this problem--not only are there no consistent explanations for historical trends and cycles, but even the actual recording of past events varies greatly among scholars. And today, these problems of interpretation within the humanities has become even more clouded under the pressures of political corectness. It is useful to note that in two of the more pragmatic soft-sciences--business management and law--the use of the case method has helped merge the reality of highly variable real world transactions with a set of general rules and established principles. I believe that "the case method" is also applicable to history and that by measuring and comparing past results some important lessons of history can be isolated. But they can never attain the predictability and provability of celestial orbits.

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Susan Marie Groppi

  • Susan Marie Groppi is a historian and an editor, currently living in Berkeley, California.


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