Is Historical Research Science?
Following my last post regarding the benefits of the historical approach, various conversations with friends and colleagues have encouraged me to further consider the historian’s methodology. One of the main points of discussion is whether historians and historical research can be thought of as objective in the same sense generally intended when discussing the (traditionally positivistic) natural sciences.
Superficially it seems that the work of a biologist, for example, is of a completely different order to that of a historian. Indeed, differences in the subject material under investigation within the two ‘camps’ makes a distinction between them seem intuitively clear. But are the approaches really so different – is history really as ‘unscientific’ as it might perhaps seem? I would argue that there is a strong case for considering historical research, despite it dealing more in abstraction, idea, and memory, as identical in many important ways to natural scientific research. Three main reasons seem of particular significance.
- Historical research and Natural Scientific research have the same aims. Both history and the natural sciences seek to form evidence-based understandings about a particular subject area. Whether the research is focusing on reconstructing the particular events of a specific battle, the biography of a figure of some importance, the development and spread of a social movement, or the diffusion of a particular intellectual current over different bodies of theory, the central concern of history is to provide a reliable understanding of a particular process or phenomenon based on the best information available. The exact same concern can be seen in the work of a biologist attempting to understand, say, the way a species has developed and adapted over millennia, or specific aspects of how red blood cells transport oxygen around the bloodstream. Reasoning based on evidence is central to forming understandings within both forms of inquiry.
- Historical research and natural-scientific research both can be directed towards predicting future events. Once there are some reasonable and ‘proven’ connections made within both subject areas, such knowledge can inform, with greater or lesser certainty, some idea about what will occur in similar future circumstances. For example, based on historical evidence it might be predicted that two particular communities will not integrate successfully during a process of socio-cultural integration within a particular area. Similarly, based on natural scientific evidence it might be predicted that two particular molecules will react and combine in a particular way under certain chemical conditions.
Here it might be counter-argued that a natural scientific prediction has the capacity to be somewhat more reliable and exact. However, greater specificity or accuracy of prediction is a difference of degree rather than of kind, as, like predictions based on history, no natural scientific argument can be fully certain that some future unknown factor will not affect the particular process being predicted. Furthermore, whether prediction can be considered ‘successful’ is wholly dependent on the criteria of success. For example, should the criteria are made specific enough (e.g. wanting to know the exact trajectory of every single remnant of an atom when it is split, down to the most infinitely minute degree) then the predictive capacity of a natural scientific experiment becomes vague and uncertain in a manner characterising predictions based on historical research.
- Historical ‘experiments’ and natural scientific experiments are similarly unrepeatable. Any repeatability is dependent on abstract categorization. A main argument separating historical research and the natural sciences is that historical events cannot be repeated, whereas natural scientific experiments can. Strictly speaking, however, no natural-scientific experiment is exactly repeatable either; no two experiments will be completely identical. To use the example of a hypothetical chemical experiment looking at the bonding of two particular elements, at a molecular level each experiment is actually involving 1) different molecules to the first and 2) conducted within a totally separate context (period in time, location etc.). The idea that this experiment is repeatable, therefore, comes down to subjective categorisation within the natural sciences of how elements are grouped together and considered as distinct from others. Such categorisation of any ‘stuff’ within the universe can be defined in infinite ways. Indeed, scientific progress is characterised by paradigmatic changes of opinion on what categorisations should be used. The relevance of this can be linked to the example just mentioned: if the categorisation equating the elements in the first and second hypothetical experiments were to be changed, then suddenly the second experiment is no longer a repeat of the first.
Though such an argument might seem overly abstract, it is not made to dispute the general usefulness or importance of positivistic scientific experimentation. Rather, the point is that ‘unrepeatability’ of history is only so because of a lack of categorisation placed upon the subject matter, conversely provided in the natural sciences. The apparent distinction over repeatability between the two fields is not, therefore because of any inherent difference in the nature of historical or natural scientific investigation itself, but rather that one is defined by categories that are seen as recurring and the other is not.
In conclusion then, the above (perhaps slightly sophistic) arguments are intended only to highlight in a very brief way that the distinction between historical and natural scientific methodologies is not as absolute as might be supposed. Obviously every field has its own nuances, but it is interesting to consider ways in which the seemingly distinct fields might be more similar than is usually assumed.