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Friday, October 28, 2011

History, the Final Frontier

Fascinatingly, social scientists seemed to be trained in a way that makes them unable to recognize that there even is such a discipline as history. When they say to you, "Of course, history exists," what they mean is that events did happen before today. They have no clue that history is a distinct discipline, with its own unique methods and standards of evidence.

I just received a note from a very bright social scientist that exhibits this befuddlement on the topic of history very nicely. I quote it, with permission:

"I assume the following two points

"1. 'Facts' are theory laden."

Right away, he has gone completely off the tracks. He believes that there are historical facts, around which one devises a theory. What counts as a fact depends somewhat on one's theory, but these facts, while being "theory laden," are separble from one's theory, and could, for instance, confirm or refute it.

But that is all nonsense. The historian's theories are theories about what the facts were. As Collingwood put it, the "fact" that after 200 AD (as I recall -- I may have misremembered the date here) the Roman legions were mostly recruited from outside Italy is not a piece of data with which the historian starts his inquiry, and around which he spins a "theory"; rather, it is the conclusion of an historical inquiry. The historian's theory is that "after 200 AD, the legions were chiefly recruited from outside Italy." His facts are not "theory laden." His theories are propositions about what the facts were.

"2. The synthetic a priori either doesn't exist or is EXTREMELY limited in what it can tell us"

But, of course, historians do not rely on the "synthetic a priori" to do their work. They rely on what Mises called verstehen.

"Given that, how do you do history without rigorous empirical testing?"

Well, of course, historians do "rigorous empirical testing." In fact, it is hard to imagine a discipline more empirical or more rigorous. (Certainly economics, a field in which every practitioner is able to hold tight to her theory come what may, is far less rigorous than history, a field in which questions are regularly and routinely settled to the satisfaction of the entire profession. Two examples: 1) Every single historian I have encountered on the topic agrees that, contrary to popular belief, the educated people of the Middle Ages knew that the earth was round. And they all agree on this, whether they are Christian, atheist, Muslim, or Taoist; while 2) I don't know of a single economist who rejected her previously held theory of the business cycle based on the evidence of the recent downturn. Every single economist I follow contends that the exact same evidence confirms her own theory! So which profession is more "rigorous"?!) This historical testing consists in assembling every bit of evidence available -- military records, town records, soldiers' diaries, inscriptions on monumental stones, the finds of archaeological digs -- and determining what conclusions are consistent with that evidence. But what my interlocutor desires is that historians should be doing regression analysis, or something of the sort, i.e.: "amongst all empires in their late stages of decay, what percentage of troops were, on average, recruited from outside the core of the empire?" What he wants is for history to abandon its own, extremely rigorous empirical methods, and adopt those of some theoretical social science.

Let us note a couple of things about the method he endorses:

1) To follow it, one must have already done one's historical work: compiled a list of empires, determined what was their core region, and found out from where they recruited their troops. One cannot possibly begin to do statistical analysis without first understanding specific situations, since without understanding specifics, one cannot possibly formulate classes into which one can place events, or know which events should go into which classes!

2) Furthermore, this recommended method, whatever it may yield of interest, is absolutely useless for answering historical questions. As Collingwood noted, the job of the historian is much like that of the detective. The detective's job is not to formulate a "theory of the causes of crime," but to find out who committed this particular crime. What my interlocutor believes is that the detective ought to undertake a regression analysis as to what factors are significantly correlated with crimes of the type he is investigating, and if it turns out that being poor, black, male, and between 15 and 25 are significantly correlated, then the detective ought to arrest all those who fit the criteria, and the prosecutor should dole ought a fraction of the sentence amongst the lot of them. Anything else would exhibit unscientific prejudice! That this is a nonsensical way of proceeding can be seen merely by describing it.

Of course, the detective may come into the case with "ideological priors" -- for instance, he may be inclined to arrest a poor, black teenager, based on a study like the one above. But the cure for that is simply more careful attention to the actual evidence: if the only fingerprints at the crime scene are those of an elderly, white widow, and the murder weapon is in her apartment, then the detective must follow the evidence and arrest her, whatever his "priors" were. It should be obvious that more, or more rigorous, statistical studies would be of no help whatsoever in overcoming those priors and actually figuring out who committed this particular crime.

14 comments:

  1. The round earth point is fascinating - I hadn't realized that - but is that really comparable to the business cycle point and something to criticize economists on?

    That historians agree on this is good, but that seems more comparable to the statement "all economists agree that there was a stock market crash in 1929 and a monetary contraction in 1931". Counting these "facts" of course depends on a certain theory. Friedman and Schwartz memorialize this point when they quote Marshall before launching into their Monetary History. That's all fine - I agree. But simply agreeing on those theory-dependent facts seems like a lot easier task than providing a scientific understanding of the mechanism driving the data.

    In other words - historians agree on the existence of the round-earthers and economists agree on the existence of the monetary contraction, but do historians agree any more than economists on the forces shaping and relating these facts? Are they as rigorous in developing theories of the relations between these facts as economists are? And shouldn't we be comparing apples to apples? In expecting historians to agree on round-earthers and economists to agree on a business cycle theory you seem to be comparing apples to oranges.

    I bet there are more historians out there who DON'T think everyone agreed on a round earth in the Middle Ages than there are economists out ther who DON'T think there was a monetary contraction in 1931.

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  2. The Marshall quote that Friedman and Schwartz lead their book with, for those unaware is:

    "Experience in controversies such as these brings out the impossibility of learning anything from facts till they are examined and interpreted by reason; and teaches that the most reckless and treacherous of all theorists is he who professes to let facts and figures speak for themselves, who keeps in the background the part he has played, perhaps unconsciously, in selecting and grouping them, and in suggesting the argument post hoc ergo propter hoc."

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  3. "Are they as rigorous in developing theories of the relations between these facts as economists are?"

    And this is why social scientists can't even see history for what it is! The "fact" that no educated person in the Middle Ages though the earth was flat IS an historical theory... a very well-confirmed historical theory. It is the RESULT of historical research, and not the input into it. What you are asking is, "But... don't those historians ever stop discovering such facts and start creating social scientific theories?"

    Well, sometimes they do, but then they have stopped doing history, and started doing social science!

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  4. "The Marshall quote..."

    Yes, more good evidence that social scientists are almost congenitally incapable of recognizing what history is!

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  5. "In expecting historians to agree on round-earthers and economists to agree on a business cycle theory you seem to be comparing apples to oranges."

    By the way, Daniel, I absolutely admit that as soon as historians stop doing history and start devising social theory, they disagree even more than economists do! But that is because they stopped doing history!

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  6. OK, that's fair enough if that is exactly where history stops. I would have thought some interpretive weaving of the facts into a narrative could have also been "history" without encroaching on social science - that's all. I wasn't trying to claim that historians aren't rigorous.

    But the implication of your post seemed to be that economists are less rigorous than historians.

    When you write this: " I don't know of a single economist who rejected her previously held theory of the business cycle based on the evidence of the recent downturn. Every single economist I follow contends that the exact same evidence confirms her own theory! So which profession is more "rigorous"?!"

    It seems to me you're comparing apples and oranges and that's my only point. When Kutznets constructs the national accounts or when Reinhart and Rogoff construct their panel dataset on public finances, they're doing work that's comparbale to your example of the rounder-earthers.

    Business cycle theorists seem to be doing something very different, do they not?

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  7. But isn't "social theory" part and parcel of "history?"

    Physicists and chemists don't just identify particles and elements -- they try to determine the nature and causality of interactions between those particles and elements.

    "On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces in Charleston, South Carolina commenced bombardment of Fort Sumter" is "history," but why they did so is too, IMO.

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  8. Of course why is part of history. But an historical answer to that question will not be in terms of a general theory of secession, but in terms of the particular things that made that particular secession happen.

    That is not to say that historians don't often put general social theory in their works -- they do. Nor is it to say they shouldn't do so. But they are doing something other than history at that point, just like David Bohm wasn't doing physics when he speculated on the cosmic meaning of quantum mechanics.

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  9. Gene, I think you are being a bit harsh in the beginning. When your correspondent wrote:

    'Facts' are theory laden."

    ...if you had asked me to explain what he meant (just judging from that snippet), I would have said exactly the kind of thing that you said, to show how wrong this guy was.

    I mean, he put "facts" in quotation marks, to show you that we really don't have facts at all. And then you chastised him, for not realizing that we don't have facts at all.

    (Maybe in the context of his whole email, it's clear that he meant something else by it, but from that excerpt alone--which you say went off the rails--I thought he was saying exactly the position that you offered yourself.

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  10. "2. The synthetic a priori either doesn't exist or is EXTREMELY limited in what it can tell us"

    This makes me wonder to what extent social scientists actually understand social science.

    To the extent that "empirical" methods like regression analysis have any relevance at all to reality, this is almost entirely due to (a) various mathematical theorems (which, like all mathematical theorems, are justified entirely by the synthetic a priori); and (b) good choices of models (and what could be more "theory laden" than the choice of model?).

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  11. But, no, Bob, I am not saying there aren't facts of history -- what I am saying is that there are not facts which are separate "inputs" into some theory of history.

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  12. " I would have thought some interpretive weaving of the facts into a narrative could have also been "history"..."

    Oy, oy, oy, oy... in history, there *are* no facts except that they are interpretively weaved into a narrative! A piece of evidence that attested to something that did not fit into the narrative suggested by all other pieces of evidence would have to be rejected, or would cause all of the other evidence to be re-interpreted.

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  13. re: "Oy, oy, oy, oy... in history, there *are* no facts except that they are interpretively weaved into a narrative!"

    You know what I mean Gene - a broader more causal explanation than the ones you've been referencing. If you don't want me to call that "narrative" give me the word you prefer.

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