Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Historical Sciences Bah...

I am not really a big fan of the historical sciences. To me it makes a mockery of the word science(*). Scientific method is about repeatable experiments, and everybody knows that... "His-tory neever repeats...". Also, one can always quip back to some asserted historical fact - "Were you there?" you know to "observe" it. Indirect observation, irrepeatable conditions = always conjecture. This especially irks me when experts in their field go to extreme lengths and expense to prove for example A) that Jesus performed miracles or
B) that a particular fossil is the common ancestor of apes and humans.

To me these factoids are primarily used to enforce one's theological convictions, and are therefore pretty useless scientifically.

Even historical ice cores for temperature & atmosphere content statistics have gone as far as is scientifically useful. Todays conditions and issues are so radically different to historical ones, that it cannot help policy decisions today, and are therefore again only useful in promoting ones views (perhaps at taxpayers' expense).

(*) - To tell you the truth, I probably just have a problem with the "SPIN" placed on historical sciences rather than the historical science itself.

12 comments:

Dr. Clam said...

I love the historical sciences. More than cheese. More than all the cheese in the universe. More than *every kind* of cheese that ever existed or will exist, from now until the end of time, should there be an end of time. And its not that I don't like cheese. I love cheese! Yay cheese! I love cheese more than I love theocracy and libertarianism and nationalisation of insurance companies all rolled into one. But I love the historical sciences more than cheese. Good, sweet, magnificent, beautiful, gemutlich historical sciences, I love you, I love you, oi oi oi! May the knavish tricks of your enemies be confounded, may their folly leave them breathless and astounded, and may all their goods and chattels be impounded!

Boo, hiss!

Dr. Clam said...

By 'theocracy and libertarianism rolled into one' I am thinking of something like the sturdy Boer with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other. *He* would nationalise the insurance companies quick as spit.

Marco said...

Sure, mock; ridicule, but does it even class as a science with its observability/provability/repeatability constraints.

Dr. Clam said...

Sorry, I've spent too much time browsing the rabid backblocks of the blogosphere where everyone posts like that. Must... maintain... focus... and... post... a... reasonable... answer... to Marco's diabolical button-pressing. ;)

Jenny said...

A comic about certainty.

http://xkcd.com/c263.html

Also, I remember being taught in undergrad chemistry that you shouldn't extrapolate your data beyond your known data points because curves can change and your extrrapolations become increasingly unlikely. I get all offended when I see it done elsewhere and treated like certainty.

Chris Fellows said...

I suppose my considered comment would be that all sciences, as practised, contain a strong historical element. I don't think the fact that our evidence was collected after the fact makes it impossible for us to get at the truth. Our scientific assumption is that same kinds of processes applied now as then, and experimentally we seek today to obtain information on how those processes work: What factors influence them? What are the probabilities are of one thing happening rather than another. We can then validly apply our knowledge of those procedures to past times.

Our guiding principles are uniformitarianism (in the sense of the same natural laws applying then as now) and self-consistency (is our model of the past state of the world internally consistent).

When you look at the results of a chemical experiment, you will frequently find that variables you weren't thinking of, and the value of which you did not or could not measure, seem to have had a big effect on your results, and you will have to rationalise these results after the fact. You might not be in a position to go back and do more experiments, but that does not invalidate what you have found: you are justified in publishing your results and conjectures and future workers are justified in re-analysing your data and discarding your conjectures, with or without new experiments.

All sciences suffer to some extent from 'physics envy', but it is physics, rather than the historical sciences, which provides all the unobservable/unprovable/irreproducible philosophical waffle that New Scientist keeps picking up on. The historical sciences are grounded in observable, provable, reproducible *processes* which we understand.

Perhaps I should go back and reread your post to see what your point was. I've forgotten :) Iam not sure exactly where on what we might call the 'rejectionist spectrum' you were placing yourself.

Marco said...

That is a good point. I emoted about historical sciences giving only brief examples of where it might trigger my anger. I guess I am always suspicious that the historical scientist could blatantly lie and get away with it, with an easy to maintain conspiracy which covers its tracks. The lie just has to be consistent with your uniformitanism & self-consistency.

Klaus Rohde said...

The scientific world without "historical" science would be vastly impoverished. Imagine: no theory of biological evolution, no hypotheses on the origin and evolution of the universe. Even some parts of physics and chemistry have a historical component, just remember thermodynamics. Should we really restrict ourselves to laboratory work and forget about the rest?

Marco said...

xvLet us take biological evolution as a case in point. I get suspicious that the primary reason it is pursued is to mock and replace religious viewpoints in this regard. The beauty of "Creation" as a gift given to us by a creator is replaced, by just something beautiful. Does it help or hinder me sleeping at night? Frankly I'd rather be thinking of a life after than oblivion regardless of what my logic tells me.

As you are probably aware, I don't mind sharing my viewpoints on evolution and origins of the universe, but what exactly are we trying to prove with new research?

Dr. Clam said...

What have you done with the real Marco, you fiend? What are your demands for his release?

Chris Fellows said...

Re the historical component of chemistry: The distribution of elements on Earth, and hence the kind of chemistry that happens here, is just a historical fact, arising from the vagaries of stellar evolution. We can only 'understand' it through the historical sciences.

I see you added a footnote about spin, and I guess most of the aggressive atheist scientists one comes across in media are biologists. I don't know if this is due to young combative atheists 'partitioning in' to biology because they see it as a field where they can help 'Ecrasez l'infame!': but I know the opposite effect, of science students from certain religious backgrounds 'partitioning out' of biology because they see it as the enemy, is very common.

Dave said...

Cheap shot time:

Historically, science improves itself with age.

Historically, religion does not.

Bah-dum-ching! I'm outta here!