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May 03, 2003

Wait until we're wise....

Dave Appell of Quark Soup reviews Mckibben's book-Bill McKibbean Spanks the Future. Pretty long & informative. Virgina Postrel has a round-up of reviews.

Also, ran across this Jay Manifold post titled Why People Don't Believe the Historical Sciences.

Posted by razib at 01:18 PM




I have never heard the designation "historical sciences" before. I don't mean to imply that there aren't historical facts (e.g. I think it a fact that the moon landing really happened), but it seems unlikely that history can ever be studied scientifically because 1) history does *not* repeat and 2) we cannot create mathematical models or computer simulations of history.

In this day an age it is said that the reason for learning history is to "stop it from repeating" or some such stupidity. In the past history was taught to the young in order to transmit culture from generation to generation, hence white Americans learned about the deeds of America's founders as well as European history. Today the notion of cultural unity among whites is considered to be "racist"[1], so now white students learn about other people's history (e.g. African history).

I have one other point to make. Karl Marx made repeated reference to the expression "the science of history". Readers who disapprove of Marxism should take note.

[1]As far as I can tell, the word "racist" has no fixed definition, but it generally connotes disdain. For instance when someone says "that is very racist" disdain is implied but the sentence otherwise has no precise meaning.

Posted by: Sporon at May 3, 2003 08:09 PM


but it seems unlikely that history can ever be studied scientifically because

>> 1) history does *not* repeat

The big bang, or the extinction of the dinosaurs does not repeat, yet presumably they can be studied scientifically.

>> and 2) we cannot create mathematical models

Of course one can create mathematical models of history. It's not likely that such models can be accurate in the long term, but that's just because human society is very complex. If the study of weather is science, so is the study of history.

>> or computer simulations of history.

Computer simulations are not necessary for something to be called a science. Science predates computer simulations.

Posted by: Dienekes at May 4, 2003 01:12 AM


I again refer anyone struggling with the historical sciences to the epilogue of Guns, Germs, and Steel. To be sure, the idea of history as a science has been dreadfully tainted by charlatans. But just as the popularity of astrology does not render astronomy (or, in particular, cosmology) meaningless, a truly scientific study of human history need not lie forever beyond our grasp.

Diamond's is also the best (actually, pretty much the only) explanation I've seen for why the ranks of anti-evolutionists include the occasional physicist or chemist -- or even biochemist.

Posted by: Jay Manifold at May 4, 2003 08:52 AM


I tried to bring this up on Jane Galt but it died. Evolution is probably the prime example of a historical science, since new entities come into being and change the rules for all subsequent beings. A biology based on the world of a billion years ago would be false today. (If you go back to the earliest periods, liffe was all anaerobic and oxygen was a poison).

A theoretical science is true universally for all time and everywhere; historical sciences aren't. So if universality is part of your definition of science, then historical sciences do not exist. (Likewise, if determinism is part of your definition of science, since historical sciences are contingent).

On the other hand, if you have a reality which is by nature historical (changing, emergent, contingent), and you give it a scientific, deterministic, universalistic destcription, you're falsifying reality. Happens all the time, too.

But historical studies are non-fictional and can be very penetrating. They just don't allow you to make scientific (determinist, universalist)claims for your results.

A lot of this is fighting for personal bragging rights. "What I'm doing is scientific!" gets brownie points. "What you're doing isn't!" is supposedly a killer putdown. However, different forms of study apply to different topics; a deterministic description of non-deterministic phenomena is a fraud or at least an error.

A related distinction is between studies with clear, unique and certain solutions (the model of math and theoretical science) and those more complex, less certain, more polyvalent solutions. This includes historical sciences but also genuine policy questions. People always wish they could reduce all policy questions to science, and economists think that they've done so, but to me this shows either authoritarianism, or at least a real discomfort with the messy reality of the human condition.

Gould isn't widely admire here, but he touches on this in "Time's Cycle, Time's Arrow" and "Wonderful Life". A historical approach is J.H Hexter, "The History Primer". Ilya Prigogine (Nobel physical chemist) even brings it down to the physical level in "Order Out of Chaos". (Paul Vetne, "Writing History" denies the big-s scientific claims of all the human sciences except economics, but Deirdre McCloskey believes that economics is a historical science too.)

I wrote a 70-page essay on these questions once but I better quit for now.

Posted by: zizka at May 4, 2003 12:45 PM


Paul Veyne.

Posted by: zizka at May 4, 2003 12:47 PM


I was a bit lazy and didn't really read the linked-to page. I don't have a problem with calling anthropology or study of the universe's origins "science". I hadn't heard of the designation "historical science" but if astronomy and anthropolgy fall under that designation then so be it.

Alghough I admit to not knowing anything about economics, I am suspicious of it (perhaps unjustly so). On a related note, I'm also suspicious of the entire commercial world. Companies often don't give back much of their profit (in dividends), claiming that they are going to grow instead. Of course its a perfectly reasonable thing to do *if* they can use the money more efficiently than the individual shareholder but that's a big if. Also it seems reasonable to me that there is a limit to how much an ecomony can grow. Consumer demand can be satisfied and technological advances will occur with less frequency, since each new advance is inevitably more complex than its predecessors. Therefore, on the macro-economic scale, money can't simply buy economic growth, but every company claims its going to grow by turning its profit into capital. Its a similar scenario to 1/2 of all drivers claiming to be better than average.

Economic predictions fail with remarkable predictability. The world bank claims to have economic plans which will turn third world garbage heaps into first world countries but we have yet to see one of these miracle transformations occur. One of the failings of the economic proffession is the egalitarian assumption. They do not take into account the concept of genetic capital, i.e. the idea that genes are themselves raw economic "inputs". Supposing that third world countries lack good genetic capital, then all economic plans to transform them into first world countries are doomed from the start. As a matter of fact in most economic departments the words I just wrote would be considered absolutely criminal but I think that those who peddle falshoods are the true criminals no matter how self-evidently good and enlightened their falsehoods are. Keep your rainbows and your sunshine, because I'd much prefer to live in darkness and evil, where truth is King, thank you very much!

Now, there are other problems with economists. They often claim that their field is a science. Its the only science in which the scientists are known to interfere with the experiments. Of course its understandable that economists would be sought for advice but they they don't just give advice when its sought, they often openly advocate economic policies of one sort of another and what they advocate will then depend on their own personal philosophies (e.g. utilitarianism etc.). I doubt that many economists have personal philosophies at all consonant with mine.

I just read over what I wrote and I must admit that I am now filled with self-satisfied glee having written such nasty stuff about economists. Its a shame that I don't know anything about economics.

Posted by: Sporon at May 5, 2003 10:02 PM


Also it seems reasonable to me that there is a limit to how much an ecomony can grow. Consumer demand can be satisfied and technological advances will occur with less frequency, since each new advance is inevitably more complex than its predecessors.
Let me point to computers as an excellent refutation of that argument. It only takes a bit of examination to see it's true in most other areas, also: while the tech is more complex, it leads to cheaper, more plentiful products... and increased demand.

I agree with your self-assessment regarding economic knowledge.

Posted by: Troy at May 8, 2003 02:56 AM


I don't see that as much of a refutation. Making toilet paper cost nothing won't make people want to use it all day.

Most users can do their word processing with 486's anyway. The demand you are talking about isn't there.

Posted by: Sporon at May 8, 2003 08:44 AM


The demand is evident from the fact that computer sales have grown immensely since the 486 was obsoleted; certainly more people own computers now than when the 486 was current, and I suspect they individually tend to use them more (the Web boom postdates the 486, y'know?). Note also that computer prices have gone down dramatically as their capability has increased.

But if you don't like that example for some reason, try the automobile. Or the telephone. Or just about anything in consumer technology. Despite the cute non sequitur about toilet paper, you don't have a valid point.

Posted by: Troy at May 8, 2003 03:10 PM


I didn't talk about computer sales over the last five years. I noted that the 486 is all most users need. I have also heard plenty of anecdotal evidence of users not upgrading their equipement because they feel that it is already adequate.

Here is an interesting article that tells you what is about to happen in the computing world titled "Forget Moore's Law".

From the article:

It was a statement by Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. His words were both simple and devastating: when asked how the 64-bit Itanium, the new megaprocessor from Intel and Hewlett-Packard, would affect Google, Mr. Schmidt replied that it wouldn't. Google had no intention of buying the superchip. Rather, he said, the company intends to build its future servers with smaller, cheaper processors.

and...

As Mr. Schmidt points out in his notes, with Intel's research and development costs doubling every 18 months (apparently R&D follows Moore's law as well), in another 20 years the company's R&D costs will be $31 trillion annually. Something must give long, long before then.

But give the last word to Mr. Moore himself, who once said, "Obviously, you can't just keep doubling every couple years. After a while the numbers just become absurd. You'd have the semiconductor industry alone bigger than the entire GDP of the world."

Posted by: Sporon at May 8, 2003 07:57 PM


My anectodal evidence contradicts yours -- I only know one person who has hung onto their old system, but dozens who have upgraded in the past half-dozen years.

And your quote illustrates the same errors Norman Augustine took such delight in presenting in his book -- things like "with the present trend, the Air Force will spend its entire budget on a single aircraft by 200X", or how the increasing complexity of the Army's equipment would cause it to fail more often. That neither happened means something gave... and when you assume "all other things being equal, X will occur", what gives is typically the assumption that all other things will remain equal.

Come back after having watched matters for half a century, and we'll talk again.

Posted by: Troy at May 9, 2003 02:50 AM