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Historicism and science

As I proceed deeper into Popper, I have pondered his ideas on ‘historicism’, the idea that one can define a set of laws of history. Within the context he is arguing I must say that he is correct. Popper argues such laws are unscientific because they are not falsifiable. This is true for the case of all of which I am aware, whether several millinnia ago or within recent memory. But is it a true statement or is it an over-application of inductive reasoning?

I do not think we know enough to make that general of a statement about the possibility of historical laws. With the knowledge at hand we are probably on safe ground to agree that racially based, class-based and simple projections of past events onto future history are non-starters. So what would it take to really have a ‘Seldon Theory’?

Science requires data. Hypotheses must be based on data and should be falsifiable by uncovering new data or effects which are sufficiently counter to the predications of theory so as to bring its viability into question. To do that with history we need not one history but many. True, we can analyze numerous Earthly civilizations from different times and places, but that is not enough. We simply do not have enough detail about many of them. Perhaps new developments in Archaeology will one day make such data available, but for the present we have only a small number of historical, independent civilizations from which to work.

Even worse, were we to generate a theory that was applicable to such pre-technological societies, those theories would still fall upon the same problem when looking at what comes after, because once technology arrives on a planet, the boundaries become fuzzy very quickly and you are back to having only one data point. You cannot build a theory on a single data point. Even worse, we are in a technological civilization in which the rate of change grows more rapid with each passing year. How can you generate any sort of prediction about a world with wildly different characteristics from your own, none of which are knowable to you? How could a Scientific Historian of, say 1950, predict much of anything about a world with global access to virtually all of human knowledge, blogs, twitterers, computerized phones more powerful than Colossus and a third world that is not quite so third any more?

The simple answer is: “They would not have had a prayer of being right.”

So have I proved a Theory of History is impossible? No, far from it. I have simply framed the obvious limitations of the data available to us. It is insufficient to allow anything like a hard science of history to develop. That does not mean such data will never be available. Let us posit one possible future in which there might be true scientists working in such a field…

It would be some hundreds if not thousands of years hence. Humanity has gone to the stars and we have studied the histories of hundreds of other sentient races. We have put our AI’s to work for some decades to analyze and categorize; we have looked at vast amounts of cross-galactic statistical data; we have framed the areas where mathematical Chaos reigns and know the likely set of outcomes. Our learned future historical scientists are arguing over what experimental data is required to falsify their theories: ie, can we find a civilization X in which Y occurred?

Then and only then could we say that history is a science. Of course we still do have a problem. Unless we run across an elder civilization willing to talk to us, we still cannot predict our own future at all. We can only do so for civilizations at earlier stages of development than our own.

Thus Popper still wins the argument against Historicism as a self-analysis tool even in the far future.

46 comments to Historicism and science

  • Steven Rockwell

    “Then and only then could we say that history is a science.”

    I don’t think history can ever truly be a science, simply because the study of history is always open to interpretation and debate. A theory in science can be examined and tested until it is as close to a law as humanly possible, but a historical theory is always open to some new historian’s spin on the same subject. The facts/dates/events/evidence might not be in question, but what those facts mean will be. A hundred historians can examine the same event and come up with a hundred valid interpretations of that event.

  • True, Steven. But even if it wasn’t, and a “correct” interpretation of the past was possible, prediction would still be a problem, for the same reason that macro-economics doesn’t work: human behavior is unpredictable. That’s why behavioral sciences are only science in the sense of the possibility of empirical study – the same goes for history.

  • Steven Rockwell

    It isn’t just the unpredictability of human behavior that’s a factor, it’s the unrealiability of the source data. With science, we can at least point towards hard numbers and use that as a basis for a hypothesis. It was X degrees celsius, it was travelling at y kph, it was z kgs, that kind of thing. (what’s the old adage? If one can’t express a thing in numbers, one can’t really know that thing or something to that effect).

    But with history, we can’t even know which story is right. Two generals will view the same battle differently, even though they were both there and their reports, letters, and diaries will reflect that. Sure, we’ll have certain irrefutable facts about that battle (X number of troops killed, Y number of tanks destroyed, Z number of miles the front collapsed), but when historians are building a cohesive story, which general do they believe?

    What about when the participants are deliberatly evasive, such as when using trial transcripts? I’m working on research now where the participants said one thing in a trial, even though the participants clearly lied.

    How can we build any type of scientific theory based on a non-scientific discipline? There’s nothing to really test in history, no way to prove something that can’t be challenged, no way to express the idea mathematically. It’s akin to building a skyscraper on a foundation of sand: it can give way at any time.

    God help me, I’m starting to sound like a postmodernist.

  • Dale Amon

    You are looking at a grain size far lower than I am talking about. I am saying that some miillinnia from now, our Star Ship Friedrich Hayek might arrive over a planet far, far away, analyze the existing civilization or civilizations and then be able to state with a high degree of confidence the general way in which things will work out over the next few centuries. We *will* have numbers by then. Rates of technological change, rates of population growth, where they are relative to the discovery of key ideas, whether they (or some subgroup) are on the verge of discovering the scientific method or to develop various mixes of institutions (some of which we may find elsewhere in the galaxy but have not had ourselves). All of those will give us an ability to predict general directions of those who are younger than us.

    And, we will also know when such civilizations are about to enter areas in which Chaotic dynamics take over and for which we can only predict likely outcomes.

    We might even have a high degree of ability to predict which worlds are going to wipe themselves out; which are going to become starfarers at some point, and perhaps which ones will cause a great deal of trouble in their neighborhoods when they do.

    Someone arriving in orbit over the Earth right now with such knowledge would for example know if there is such a thing as a singularity or not; they would know the types of civilizations that survive it and their typical behavior afterwards, based on hard data culled from watching hundreds or thousands of other races go through it.

    When the number of data points start piling up, your statistics start to become meaningful, even if there is a lot of uncertainty and lying going on.

  • Steven Rockwell

    But your theory is built on those small grain sizes. Not to mention the fact that those theoretical technological development rates ultimately come down to a few individuals seeing a use for a new idea. Hero of Alexandria developed the idea for the steam engine 2000 years ago in the form of the aeolipile. What if some enterprising young Greek saw that and created the first steam engine instead of thinking, “that’s neat. I wonder if I have enough money for a bottle of wine?” In our reality, it took another 18 centuries to come up with the railroad. How would a future historian fit that into a mathematical model? Or if Planet X is uranium poor and the inhabitants never develop atomic power? Or are a hive mind or a superintelligent shade of blue? Or if they never develop religion, and never develop inquisitions or dark ages? Or the city-state or this or that or some other factor?

  • Dale Amon

    The types of situations you mention are the very reason why it would require hundreds or even more of data points.

    But, just for argument, what if our future scientists, after analyzing all of this data, find that there are key constants that are true across all known data? What if the technological exponential is a law of nature and that once you pin two points on the curve you can then predict +/- some error bar when some key inventions will appear? Is the situation you speak of with Hero accident or the expected situation? Without large data sets we can’t say.

    You see, I am not arguing that such a science DOES exist; I am arguing that we will not even have the data points to make that statement with any degree of certainty until we have such databases. If there are no vast numbers of alien species to study, then we will not ever know.

  • Dale Amon

    Perhaps a simpler way to state this is that you have put forward one hypothesis; I have put forward another. We have one data point to work and so neither one is falsifiable, thus neither of our hypotheses is science. They are opinion. However, if in the future we collect vast databases of independent histories, then they do become falsifiable and thus are science.

  • After Popper, read “The Social Atom” by Mark Buchanan.
    A theoretical physicist’s look at social science.

    There are some glimmerings of hope to explain how societies change and evolve.

  • Laird

    We’ll probably never know for certain, but I think that “history” (as you are using the term here) is a chaotic system, highly sensitive to initial conditions and therefore inherently unpredictable. But that’s just my opinion.

  • Dale Amon

    I just laid back for a few minutes and got lost in thought on this. There are indeed fascinating possibilities. An example might explicate exactly what I mean. Let’s take the one Steve brought up and make the assumption that it is now the year 3109 and we decide to approach his question scientifically.

    Questions: What is the typical time between the first invention of a steam engine and its use as a core industrial technology? ie the Hero to England interval.

    1) Is it a constant, ie 2300 years with an error bar of about 100 years? (Earth) Or is it more typically a few decades (Stevens World)

    2) Is it bivariant? ie it either happens in a few decades or else does not happen for 2300+/-100?

    3) Is it a normal distribution with a peak at 2300+/- 100? If so, is it a pure Gaussian distribution or is one or the other tail distorted? How broad is 1 standard deviation in terms of the number of years?

    4) Is it random?

    5) Other?

    It would really be rather interesting to live in a time where we could actually ask such questions and I fear that with my interest in history I might well get sucked into such a science were I to live in that far distant age.

  • RRS

    AND – there is:

    The Poverty of Historicism

    Karl Raimund Popper – 1957
    ISBN 0 7448 0052 8
    (First read as a paper – 1936)
    (Printed in Economica, N.S.
    1944 & 45)

    This was the first work of K.R.P. I read, mostly, initially, out of curiosity about his contratemps with Wittgenstein. As a devotee of Hayek, it led me to more.

    Early on these views were extremely hard to get published.

    It is only 161 pp on 5″ x 8″ plates.

  • Roy Lofquist

    Dear Sirs,

    I believe that there is a category error in this discussion. The problem being discussed, history, is mathematically of the class np-complete – or as Roger Penrose would say “not computable”. These problems fall outside the realm of Popper and the scientific method.

    There are, as pointed out, countless views of history. The only guide we have is what has proven most successful. I believe that the Judeo/Christian thread of history, with its current manifestation in the United States is objectively a vindication of that narrative.



  • veryretired

    You are forgetting the “Mule” factor. Our history, western and world, is filled with examples of unexpected men and women who brought about major changes that were not easily predictable.

    No, it is one of the terrible myths of the scientific and industrial revolutions that anything and everything can be scientifically examined, and predictions made which will cause people to work like some sort of regimented societel machine to produce the desired results.

    That being said, we do have the benefit of over a century of “scientific” planning and theoretical social constructs which, across the globe, were put into practice in widely divergent social situations and cultural contexts.

    Myriad groups of intelligient, determined, committed, reasonably conscientious, and, in many cases, well meaning people took various complex, allegedly rational, allegedly scientifically designed theoretical constructs which were claimed to harness and direct the flows and currents of history, and put them into practice in the societies over which they had gained control.

    The results, as if the world itself had been turned into a gigantic social experimental laboratory, are spread across the globe for all who can bear the sight to look at, and learn whatever lessons may be learned.

    The 20th century is a great tapestry, deep blood red in color, woven on a loom made of human bones, fashioned from the hair shaved from the heads of those untold millions who died in the ovens, prisons, camps, burning cities, who were executed by bullet, machete, gas, garden hoe, and the clubs of their mechanical, automaton-like, programmed executioners.

    Living is what makes history, and living is an art.

    Creative, joyful, thoughtful, determined, demanding, replicating, and learning.

    And, above all else, humble. Humble in the face of a reality barely understood, of physical forces and universal laws only dimly glimpsed, and not yet truly grasped, and even more humble in recognition of the infinitely complex and unique design that is each individual man and woman and child.

    What can we predict with some confidence, now that we have milenia of experience, and a century of experimental results buried before us in uncounted mass graves?

    If the spirits and creative minds of humanity are crushed and regimented by powers that claim the mandate of science, or heaven, or simply the right of might, then what looms ahead is a dark, endless tunnel, lit only by the burning books and ideas of whatever human minds still survive, and accompanied by a continuous keening wail, as the world’s mothers cry for the loss of their children to a hunger that can never be satisfied.

    If, however, the spirits of men and women can be unleashed, and their creative minds freed to pursue the life, liberty, and happiness that might be their due, if they choose wisely, then there does indeed await an entire universe to be investigated, understood, and explored.

    So here is my prediction—only free men and women will ever walk among the stars, searching for knowlege, confident in their humanity, jealously guarding the rights and liberties that adhere to that humanity, just as they do the oxygen they breathe, or the food and water that sustain their lives.

    If we lose that which makes us human, we become as cattle in the fields, knowing only the fences that limit us, the dogs that herd us into the barn, the cold, mechanical hands that milk us of whatever our masters require, and the stunning blow between the eyes that signals the end of our usefulness.

    This is the choice we face. It could not be clearer or starker.

    For the free, creative mind, the universe awaits.

    For the slave, only the release of death, and the solace of the grave.

    As Linus says, it’s Sidney or the bush.

  • VR, what you seem to be saying is that because certain kinds of knowledge are prone to abuse, we should not pursue them. But the truth is that virtually all kinds of human knowledge can and indeed have been abused one time or another.

    I think I see Dale’s point. I usually posit ‘free will’ as a counterargument, but I have recently realized that even that is a mere physical phenomenon, and as such can be subject to scientific study, with all the obvious implications, good and bad.

  • Paul Marks

    Technically Karl Popper may have been (at least historically) wrong to state that Marxism was not a scientific theory (according to the methods of the physical sciences – the older definition of the word “science” was simply a “body of knowledge” but Popper was not talking about the old, broad, definition) – he may have been wrong because Karl Marx himself did make predictions.

    For example, Marx and his supporters claimed that wages would fall over time – indeed they even claimed that wages were falling and misquoted Gladstone so they could pretend that he agreed with them.

    Since the 1840’s (when Marx and co first started making this prediction) wages in Britain and Germany (the two lands they were mostly talking about) and so on have indeed changed radically – but they have radically INCREASED.

    So Marxism could be argued to be a “scientific” theory (in the physical science – empirical sense), as long as it also accepted that Marxism is also a FALSE theory.

    Of course modern Marxists do not accept such a test (like Barack Obama’s mentor Frank Marshall Davis, and many others, – they mix in “ethical” concepts into Marxism and refuse to accept any empirical test) so modern Marxism is indeed (as Karl Popper claimed) not a “scientifc theory”. This form of Marxism can be close to religion – indeed more than close, for example with “Liberation Theology” (of Rev. Wright and others) where Marxism is actually turned into a religion (with the outward trappings of Chrisitianity kept – in order to deceive people)

    Another approach is to mix Marxism with Keynesian doctrines (thus claiming the mantle of science for Marxism by the back door) – this approach was followed by the Italian Marxist Piero Straffa and the Cambridge Marxist and “Ricardian Socialist” Maurice Dobb. However, this approach fails because Keynesianism is false – and the mixing of the two false theories (Marxism and Keynesianism) does not produce a true theory in this case.

    Although there are times when mixing aspects of two false theories can produce something of value – it just is not true on this occasion.

    Another approach (that of the Frankfurt school – which has also had a big influence on Barack Obama) is to simply ignore the question of the truth of Marxism (in either economics or in ethics) this being just ASSUMED – this approach is able to just assume the correctness of Marxism because it is dominated by the attack on aspects of “capitalist society”.

    In the United States this school of Marxism often uses the word “Critical” rather than “Marxist” – for example in American universities if an academic (in subjects as diverse as Law and Literature) declares himself part of the “Critical” school – one can be fairly sure that he or she is a Marxist (although of the Frankfurt type).

    I had better stop here – as I am well aware that I can be a bore on the subject of Marxists and their doings.

    This is a side effect of studying them for more than 30 years (yes even when I was a boy) – I can make the mistake of thinking that other people are as interested in these matters as I am.

  • David Gillies

    Scientism as a doctrine is useless even in the case of a near-term discipline like economics. If the measurement problem makes planning and prediction in this relatively simple sphere so refractory to any sort of scientific organisation, what earthly hope do we have that the vastly more complex web of history can be reduced to a general set of principles? I think if there’s anything to be learnt from a study of history (which essentially by definition is retrospective) it’s that everything is so utterly contingent. If this were not the case then alt-history would be a serious area of study rather than fodder for novels. If history can’t do retrodiction, then for damn sure it can’t do prediction. It is, to all intents and purposes, meaningless to ask ‘what if’ questions about the past. On a small scale we can sometimes ask reasonable questions and make reasonable extrapolations from a well-defined historical moment (what if Ney’s cavalry had had the means to spike the British cavalry when they overran its position during Waterloo?) But possibilities ramify so rapidly from any given point that almost immediately we run into the sand of speculation.

    This still obtains even if we could somehow refine our capabilities. The central problem is reflexivity. A computer cannot model its internal state since a change in its state engenders a change in the model, which is part of its internal state, which changes the model, which changes the state…. You get an infinite recursion. Similarly, the future is hidden behind a knowability paradox.

    It’s a measure of how seriously I take Paul Krugman as a thinker (his economist chops notwithstanding) that he quotes Asimov’s Foundation series as an influence on his choice of career. If ever a more cogent example of The Fatal Conceit were needed, I can’t think of it.

  • Dale Amon

    David: Much of economics is based on short term prediction and the fact that there are many attempting to do the same probably makes it a fools game. This is even assuming that their theories are correct.

    I am talking about large effects over long periods of time with observers who are not taking part in the events. They are outside the system watching.

    I am also, again, not saying that such a science is possible; I am only saying that even saying whether it is possible or not is an undecidable question given the single data point we have. You cannot even answer Stevens question with two datapoints, because any of the possible outcomes could be just noise in the data. You could not state with any statistical significance that there is a 2300 year gap between invention of steam and core industrial use of it without having enough independent data points to rise above the level of statistical significance.

    So the possibility or non-possibility of uncovering historical constants and laws is nothing more than an interesting way to spend time because it is simply impossible to prove one way or the other from where we sit.

    It would be like Plato and Socrates arguing about the existence of positrons. The data to answer the question was over 2000 years in their future. Some questions are like that, unfortunately.

  • mike

    “A hundred historians can examine the same event and come up with a hundred valid interpretations of that event.”

    Do you have any idea of the ethical implications of what you just said?

    As for the correct method for the social sciences – it can be neither historicism, nor mathematics. Von Mises is very good on this subject (see for example, Human Action [pdf at first hit] Chapter 2 p47-59 and Chapter 6 p117-118).

  • Steven Rockwell

    I’m not certain what ethical implications you mean. The fact is historians are human beings, have ideologies and biases, and political outlooks. Most will try to write as fairly as possible, but inevitably some bias seeps in, even if it’s unconsciously. Even when there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, any bias, different conclusions can, and will, be reached with the exact same evidence. For instance, look at the arguments over the importance of the battle of Gettysburg. Some historians think it’s the turning point of the war, the “high tide of the Confederacy.” Others think it’s not all that important because while the eastern theater got the ink, the war was won or lost in the West. Still others think the battle was important simply because for the first time the Union leadership showed it could really beat Robert E. Lee. Same evidence, different ideas of what that means.

    Going back to the original argument though, we need to keep in mind that humans are not some monolithic entity on any level, especially technologically. Let’s assume that some alien historians that subscribe to the idea that some idea of the laws of history exist. How do they reconsile the idea that the North American indiginous peoples were at a Neolithic level of technology at the same time Europeans were mapping the world? Or that Rome built continent spanning empires, but never mastered the concept of zero in mathematics, but their Mayan counterparts had the zero, but never developed the wheel, one of the most basic of machines?

  • Paul, I don’t know about others, but I actually found it very interesting: it is amazing to what lengths of convolutions will people go in order to deceive themselves and others.

  • RRS

    Mr. Lofquist:

    The issue treated by KRP is HISTORICISM, not “History.” His point is that we must reject the possibilityof a Theoritical History.

  • mike

    “I’m not certain what ethical implications you mean.”

    Let me help you with that then. Suppose one historian interpreted the murders sanctioned by ooh, say, Mao Tse Tung to have been ‘justified’, and another historian interpreted them as having been monstrous crimes. According to your statement….

    “A hundred historians can examine the same event and come up with a hundred valid interpretations of that event.”

    … both aforementioned interpretations would be equally justified.

    Whilst the cardinal value ‘true/false’ quite obviously applies to factual questions, the notion that it does not also apply to ethical questions leads – unavoidably – to arbitrary conceptions of good and evil.

    That is a bottomless error.

    What you call “author biases” are ultimately tactical positions in a fight over one question: what is a human being?

    That is a metaphysical question and any notion of value depends on the the answers to it.

  • mike


    “… both aforementioned interpretations would be equally true.”

  • veryretired

    Alisa, I’m not sure what I might have said to give you that impression. The issue is historicism, not the pursuit of knowledge.

    I am completely in favor of all moral attempts to increase our knowledge and understanding that I can imagine.

    I reject only the type of “research” done by that Japanese unit during WW2 upon helpless prisoners, or the kind of phony activity epitomized by the Carter era search for alternative fuels, which cost several billion dollars and failed to produce even one gallon of alternative fuel.

    I object to the attitude which says that some principle or principles of human behavior have been discovered which allow those initiated in the gnostic mysteries involved, such as the claim that all human behavior could be explained by class and means-of-production analyses by Marx and his acolytes, or the competing claim that all that mattered was blood and volk, to embark upon the remolding of people into something other than natural processes have produced.

    It is the pretension of god-hood that offends me, not the acquisition of some strand of knowledge, whether useful or hopelessly esoteric.

    The claim that one’s theories can lead to some glorious end result if only one is allowed to recast the common clay is the claim that people are means to a greater end.

    This belief is as fundamental an error, both intellectually and morally, as the past conceit that the universe revolved around the earth, and anyone who advanced another theory should be punished for daring to think independently, using empirical data and scientific attitudes, instead of the compliant acceptance of the faithful.

    Each man is an end in and of himself, each woman a complete universe, each child a small and gentle version of the “big bang” which led to all we are and know.

    I do not object to Dr Jonah Volkman, but I do object most strenuously to Dr Mengele.

  • Dishman

    Historicism and Seldonism seem to me to founder on the problem of non-linear dynamics and Reagan’s Rib.

    Events for decades to come were heavily affected by the precise details of how Hinckey’s bullet struck Reagan’s rib. In retrospect, we can see that things would have turned out differently (and probably much worse) with a slightly different placement.

    These high variability events are rare and effectively completely random. If they had a pattern, the people who try to prevent them for a living would counter that pattern.

    Viewing this as a matter of non-linear dynamics, there should be some kind of attractor. I use “Objective Reality”, including meta-stable points and time-variance as the attractor. In other words, the complete set of everything that is, everything that might be, and everything that works (or doesn’t). Human events move this way and that, drawn ever closer to some local fit for the attractor, exposing new factors and elements of the attractor as they do.

    While it’s possible to look at history and see how human events approached the attractor, and even model it up mathematically, prediction is another matter. That would require knowing the complete attractor, including elements which are not yet known. One example of elements not yet known is the viability of Fusion. Another is the risk/moment of an extinction class event. Such things are clear only in retrospect.

    For these reasons, I offer the following caveat:

    There’s a Black Swan in the last room of the Hilbert Hotel.

  • VR, I apologize if I have misunderstood, but:

    No, it is one of the terrible myths of the scientific and industrial revolutions that anything and everything can be scientifically examined
    and predictions made

    But this is not a myth: anything and everything can indeed be scientifically examined and predictions can be made, to various degrees of accuracy. The only question is when, not if. The more important question is what do we do with that knowledge. Which brings me to:

    which will cause people to work like some sort of regimented societel machine to produce the desired results.

    No one here suggested that kind of use of knowledge, but there will always be people who will attempt that kind of use.

  • Hit the button too early: but there will always be people who will attempt that kind of use, and we will always have to fight them.

  • Laird

    Dishman, that was precisely my point early in this thread when I posited that “history” is a chaotic system.

    The only questions I have are whether that “last room” in the Hilbert Hotel was rented to a man named Schroedinger, and whether the swan is alive or dead.

  • The swan was eaten by a cat.

  • Steven Rockwell


    I’m not attempting to suggest one historian’s view or politics is somehow more or less valid than another’s. I’m not even attempting to suggest that one hisotiran’s view can or can’t be used by politicians/tyrants to allow monsterous policies to be put in place. They can be, but so can the hard sciences. The Soviets tried to use mathematics as a tool in their propaganda war against the west, to somehow prove that Communist math was somehow more correct than decadent western math. Math is math; it’s either right or wrong. There really isn’t any middle ground. With history, that’s not true. I can give the same evidence to a dozen historians and get a dozen different explanations, all of which are equally valid explanations of the same event. People being people, we don’t always look at A = A, even when the evidence is right in front of us.

  • veryretired


    I disagree with your first part—no scientific study of music prior to his birth could have predicted Mozart. And there are several “Mules” just like him in the history of every area of human endeavor.

    As for the second quote, I fail to see any area of disagreement. Opposing those who would justify their coercive plans for society by appeals to some pseudo-scientific analysis was what my comment was all about.

  • VR, your remark about Mozart is beside the point, since physical science doesn’t predict events anyway, it only gives us their physical characteristics under defined physical conditions. Math on the other hand gives us the possibility to estimate the likelihood of the events’ occurrence, either through statistics or through approximation. Of course Mozart is a spike in the chart, but math deals with such spikes day in and day out: over a long enough period of time you get enough spikes to see a pattern, and you simply superimpose a new chart that serves as a generalization. It is only a matter of time and data collection, as Dale hinted.

    As for the second part, of course there is no disagreement, I just wanted to stress that there will always be those who would abuse knowledge, and we should be forever prepared to forcefully resist them.

  • mike


    It is some encouragement to me that I can provoke someone like you, with an interest in the hard sciences, to at least consider the point I am making. What is frustrating is that I fear my attempt to make it clear and simple to understand has failed and I’m honestly not sure how I can make it any clearer.

    But I’m going to act on the temporary assumption that the responsibility for this failure lies with me and so I’ll give it one more try.

    The problem I am calling your attention to lies with the nature and source of values since values form the basis upon which historical interpretation rests. Some values violate the nature of their own source (the free-willed individual human being) and as such, truly are ‘wrong’. Raskolnikov’s murder of the old woman is a haunting illustration of this fact. It is emphatically not a matter of all such values being “equally valid”. At the most basic level the ‘is’ actually does imply the ‘ought’.

    Is that any clearer to you than my earlier comment?

  • Robert

    Individuals can make a dramatic difference to the course of history, but that needn’t stop scientific predictions.

    After analysing a few million data points, you’d be able to estimate the probability that the next leader of a country is a great leader, or indeed a terrible one, given population size, system of government, and general conditions – e.g, a 12.7% chance that a democracy like the UK would get a great leader under WWII conditions.

    This can then be folded into the spread. Great leaders skew probabilities in favourable directions for their nations; terrible leaders do the opposite, so combine probabilities in a standard way to assess the chance that a particular nation will prosper, independent of the precise path. It might have one great leader or a bunch of mediocre leaders and some good luck. Sum over all these histories to find the total chance of prosperity.

    As for Hero’s steam engine, it can’t be scaled up to do useful work. It did use steam, but there’s rather more to a practical steam engine than that

  • Paul Marks

    Dale – economics is not based on “prediction” short or long term.

    Economics is not a physical science, although it is a “body of knowledge” (the older definition of a science). Economic ideas are tested not by events but by checking their logical reasoning for flaws (as Marxists deny the relevance and authority of traditional logic, no such process is followed in their system).

    For example, having a minumum wage level higher than the market rate will lead to unemployment higher than it would otherwise have been – but increasing the minimum wage and seeing unemployment fall does NOT refute this.

    It is not an empirical matter (what actually happens can be effected by all sorts of things it is a logical one.

    This does not mean that economics is not a serious subject or that no such thing as economic knowledge is possible. It just means that economics is not a PHYSICAL science.

    There really is no substitute for reading such works as Ludwig Von Mises’ “Human Action” on these matters – and such works are not nearly as difficult as their reputation suggests.

  • “It is not an empirical matter (what actually happens can be effected by all sorts of things) it is a logical one.”

    True; it is the logical relationships that are most important, but that doesn’t mean empirical data is entirely unimportant – the function of such data is merely different. All the earlier talk of collecting data on human societies over millenia was just silly.

    “There really is no substitute for reading such works as Ludwig Von Mises’ “Human Action” on these matters – and such works are not nearly as difficult as their reputation suggests.”

    That’s exactly right. ‘Human Action’ really isn’t that difficult at all, and Von Mises is excellent on the question of the appropriate methods for the social sciences.

  • Dale Amon

    True; it is the logical relationships that are most important, but that doesn’t mean empirical data is entirely unimportant – the function of such data is merely different. All the earlier talk of collecting data on human societies over millenia was just silly.

    And here we come to a profound and possibly unbridgeable chasm in world views… I am most decidedly in the school if it ain’t numbers, it is opinion.

  • Whitehall

    Interesting post and comments.

    By way of analogy, can one predict a chess game? Now imagine 6 billion players all engaged in a chess game, one against all (more or less.)

    Science has big ambitions but needs to face the limits of its methodogy. Life and history are just too big.

    The proper ambition of history is wisdom. Science can and does contribute to that wisdom but it will never monopolize it.

    As to Mozart being an extreme outlier – whoa!

    Let’s try a chronological sequence – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner. Perhaps we can recognize a pattern there?

  • You began with Haydn – shows what you know!:-P Seriously though, what are mere 400 years? As to the chess game, the more players, the easier the prediction.

  • Whitehall

    Of course, the easy prediction ofthe END of a chess game is one player wins and the other one loses. The draws are the outliers.

    I could and should have started with Bach. Now Wagner is questionable, I will agree.

  • Vivaldi is said to have had a considerable influence on Bach.

    Chess: it’s how they win/lose, i.e. all the possible moves and combinations.

  • Whitehall

    “Chess: it’s how they win/lose, i.e. all the possible moves and combinations”

    That was my original point but too lazy and too inarticulate to spell it out. Life is a contest and if we can’t predict a single sequence of chess moves between two players, how do we predict the infinite number of possible moves, their timing, amongst all the billions of players.

    I will grant that I have found ecology and sociobiology to be tremendously helpful in predicting the behavior of human societies and individuals.


  • mike

    “I am most decidedly in the school if it ain’t numbers, it is opinion.”

    Right well that’s all of Austrian economics, Rand, Popper, Wittgenstein, Bastiat, Locke, Aquinas and Aristotle dismissed as mere ‘opinion’ then. If only I’d known this before, I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort.

  • Paul Marks

    Some people involved in the physical sciences are of the opinion that the laws of reasoning (which are NOT “opinions”) either do not matter – or are easy.

    They do matter – indeed the physical sciences (including the use of numbers) would not be possible if people did not follow the laws of reasoning. And they are not easy either – even very intelligent people can make mistakes in reasoning (I would like to say “mistakes in logic” – but the word “logic” now implies rather specialized stuff).

    Such things as the “law of indenity” (A is A – I am myself, and so on) may sound easy – but that does not stop many people (including, I repeat, highly intelligent people) totally messing them up.

    Of course the Marxists reject the traditional laws of reasoning as in any way limiting on their ideas.

    They are in error.

    For people interested in the laws of reasoning in a general way I would suggest the works of Antony Flew – such as “Straight and Crooked Thinking”.

  • Paul Marks

    On History:

    In line with (I hope) Oakeshott – and against Collingwood. History is made up past events (not thoughts in the minds of modern historians or whatever Collingwood thought).

    These events can be divded (very roughly) into two sorts of thing – natural events (earthquakes, tidel waves and so on) and the actions of human beings.

    Of course the two can be mixed – for example “a tidel wave destroyed the city of X in the year Y” is the first sort of historical event – but “Mr So and So in the City of X choose the save the life of Mr Such and Such by helping him on to a fast horse to high ground before the tidel wave hit” is an historical event of the second sort.

    Of course what human beings choose to do in the face of nature and the choices of other human beings is just that (choices). In this Collingwood was correct – as he was correct in holding that it is human choices that is what normally most interests the historian (and NOT in the sense of the study of psychology or other such).

    For the historian to hold that people do not make choices, or that their choices are entirely predermined (which is really the same thing as holding that humans do not make choices – i.e. that they are not really human BEINGS at all) is for a historian to both strip his subject of anything of interest and to deny his own humanity (to deny his existance as reasoning agent).

    To treat the study of beings (whether human or some alien race) as if the same principles applied as in the study of non reasoing matter, is an error.

    “Acting Man” based on “the I” is not just the basis of economics (as Ludwig Von Mises held) it is also the basis of history.

    People make choices – they make choices in the context of certain physical conditions and in the context of the choices made by others, but they still make choices.

    Even Karl Marx (in his saner moments) accepted this.

  • Paul Marks

    In terms of the physical sciences Dale is correct – the Greeks just did not have the empirical data to make certain advances.

    Some Greeks did make heroic efforts to get the physical data – such as the Greeks in Egypt with their sticks and bits of string (and lots of maths) who worked out the size of the Earth (and made a good job of it to – much better than the estimate the 1492 man was working to).

    And some Greeks also made good guesses – such as that the Earth went round the Sun, and that atoms existed (although not the modern defintion of the atom).

    Sadly other Greeks won the argument on those matters – and Dale’s point is proved by the fact that the Greeks who argued that the Sun went round the Earth could explain all the physcial evidence that was about.

    Just as Aristotle was not cheating when he explained the physical evidence he had via the old four elements theory – rather than by the atom theory (the evidence he had would not refute either theory).

    However, among the mainland Greeks (perhaps not among the Ionians before the Persian conquest) there did develop a bias against empirical work – and against physical work of all sorts (slaves work).

    Plato is the classic example of this (according to various sources Socrates himself was not hostile to experiment) – and should be held as foe of science.

    As for the Romans – they to had a distaste dislike of physical work (other than fighting) at least as time went on (farming being an exception – “our ancestors were peasant farmers, so there is no dishonour in hands covered by soil”) and were very “practical” people – “oh good that machine has done the job we wanted done – now we forget all about it”.

    In religion Christianty (via Saint Joseph) made all forms of work honourable (indeed Holy in the sight of God) – not “servile”.

    Also (as Thomas Woods is fond of pointing out) many Christians felt it was their duty to uncover the laws God had created for the universe – by hard work (by experiment and rational thought).

    However (as Thomas Woods is not fond of pointing out) the most influential theologian of all was Saint Augustine – who was NOT like this at all.

    So, even centuries later, theologian/scientists like Roger Bacon were fighting an uphill battle.