Is History Based Upon the Scientific Method?

I’m thinking you haven’t read much academic history research. There’s more quantitative analysis than you might think based on the narrative history the public generally sees. Of course much of this is using historical periods for which we have more complete records. Are you familiar with the term “cliometrics”?

Neither do some historical sciences; much of paleontology is descriptive, in which the point is to figure out what events happened rather than to fit them into simple mechanisms.

I think that’s a misunderstanding both of academic history and the scientific method. Of course there isn’t just one scientific method; physics resembles your ideas more closely than many other sciences do.

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Are you suggesting that cliometrics is representative of history as a discipline? We have been reading different types of histories, and I suspect yours is biased towards cliometrics. As you said yourself, cliometrics is only possible for periods with lots of data, which is not the case for most historical work. The vast majority of historians do exactly what I say, which is examining primary sources and making logical arguments from those with little use of statistics and probability. To give an example, take a look at this list of recommended history books in the very tightly moderated subreddit AskHistorians. How many of these are primarily based on quantitative data, and how many are based on traditional historical methods?

I agree that paleontology is an interesting borderline case. There are many parallels with history. But paleontologists are able to use so many more quantitative inputs such as radiometric dating, geology, and geochemistry. In addition, paleontologists are trying to explain the history of living things whose behavior and characteristics in principle are reducible to a set of simple mechanisms. You are trying to find out generalizations which apply to a whole species. They do not have to deal with political or cultural bias. History, on the other hand, deals with human events with far greater complexity such that there is no such thing as a “specimen”; you have to examine each source on a case-by-case basis.

We have to be careful to keep widening the umbrella of the “scientific method” until it encompasses every sort of reasoning that results in what we think are “reasonable” conclusions.

@moderators might be better to move this discussion of history to its own new thread?

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I was thinking about this very thing question last night. Does the use of the scientific method imply that one is doing science? There is at least significant differences in the ability to test the conclusions that are drawn using the scientific method in the soft sciences vs the hard sciences. As a layman I’m must more skeptical of conclusions in the soft sciences than in the hard sciences.


We could end this discussion rather quickly if you could give one piece of knowledge that has been obtained thru something other than the scientific method (as opposed to the hard sciences proper) and the means by which it was obtained.

Here are a few examples I can think of:

Mathematical truths.

Purely logical truths.

Knowledge based on simple direct observation. (“It is raining outside.” “The speed limit is 55 MPH.”)

Practical instrumental knowledge, such as learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument.

While it may be possible to argue some of the above are also subsumed within the “scientific method,” I am skeptical of the claim that there exist proponents of “scientism” who would deny knowledge can be obtained thru those means, which is what the definition you are using would imply. I also think that the examples I have given exhausts the means by which human beings obtain knowledge. Can you think of any others?

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As you may recall, I suggested that at least some history uses scientific methodology, and you took a contrary position. If you now admit that cliometrics exists, you have moved from your original claim. We could continue to argue about percentages if you wanted.

Never said that. But it does become more difficult when there are fewer data.

That isn’t a list. It’s a list of lists. And there seems a mix of academic and popular histories. We agree that not all history involves scientific methodology. So?

Borderliine? Do you mean to imply that paleontology isn’t real science?

We have to be careful not to construe science so narrowly that it excludes commonly accepted sciences. Like paleontology.


Well, if that is all you’re arguing, then we’re not in disagreement. I’m not denying that there could be specific types of historical questions which could be investigated with something like the scientific method. I’d just say that it’s not the dominant form of reasoning in the subject.

Borderline in the sense that its methods of inquiry feature overlap between historical method and empirical natural science.

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I’m glad you have changed your position. Perhaps you should read more closely to determine what you’re agreeing or disagreeing with at the start.

Rather, it shows that “historical method” as used in paleontology, and perhaps in history too, is part of the scientific method.


Let’s just pause here for a moment. How many people in in this thread tend to agree or disagree with @Faizal_Ali here that what I described here regarding historical method can be the scientific method? I’m genuinely curious whether his viewpoint is common. I certainly don’t think this qualifies as the scientific method.

1 = strongly disagree (i.e., this should not be considered using the scientific method)
2 = tend towards disagree
3 = tend towards agree
4 = strongly agree

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0 voters

I’d be interested from those who have participated in this thread @AllenWitmerMiller, @cdods, @John_Harshman, @Mercer, @swamidass - as well as those who are historians (or at least working in the humanities) - @TedDavis, @rcohlers, @Joel_Duff, @Freakazoid - do you guys think that what I described above constitutes using the scientific method?

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Maybe we should ask actual historians about this. I don’t think two non-historians arguing about this is productive.

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Historians use sound scholarly methodologies which share much in common with the scientific method. But the methodologies are not identical. The study of history is not focused on the empirical study of events.


What do you mean by “empirical”?

Systematic observation for the purpose of the collection of evidence found in the matter-energy world. In modern science this is associated with a path toward predictive hypotheses and experiments which involve falsification testing of those hypotheses.

The dispute between rationalism and empiricism concerns the extent to which we are dependent upon sense experience in our effort to gain knowledge. Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Rationalists generally develop their view in two ways. First, they argue that there are cases where the content of our concepts or knowledge outstrips the information that sense experience can provide. Second, they construct accounts of how reason in some form or other provides that additional information about the world. Empiricists present complementary lines of thought. First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists cite, insofar as we have it in the first place. (Empiricists will at times opt for skepticism as an alternative to rationalism: if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge the rationalists cite, then we don’t have them.) Second, empiricists attack the rationalists’ accounts of how reason is a source of concepts or knowledge.

All of the sources of historical data listed by @cdods fall within that definition of empiricism. i.e. they are derived thru sense experience.

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What historical evidence or artifacts exist outside of the matter-energy world?

There may be much of history which isn’t based on scientific evidence, but it should be. The fact that some of history may be based on flawed or weak methodology doesn’t excuse other flawed or weak methodologies.

There’s an implicit tu quoque fallacy at work here that seems to be something like “I’m justified in believing in my religion on little, bad, or no evidence at all, because there are some historians who believe things on little, bad, or no evidence at all”.


In a word – no.

Yes, history makes use of the scientific method. But it is not based on the scientific method. History is far more concerned with the human element, and the scientific method is quite limited in dealing with that.

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I will clarify what I’ve said here and on other threads because I don’t think I’ve been as clear as I might wish: There is much about the methodologies of historians which overlaps with the scientific method. Historians do employ empiricism where appropriate. Nevertheless, history is not a science. That is one of the reasons why the courses offered by the Dept of History at any major university are associated with the humanities requirement for Bachelor’s degrees—not course credits towards the science requirement.

Much of the work of historians involves studying the writings of authors of centuries past, even ancient centuries past. In some cases, historians must study historians of the past who were quoting writers from many years prior. Because there may be little to no empirical data available for past events, analysis of the writings of ancient commentators may be all that historians have to consider. (In contrast, scientists focus on evidence, not just what scientists of the past have written and believed. When scientists quote from past documents, they are focusing on the evidence and analysis contained in those published academic texts.) Yes, empiricism often arises in the peer-review journals of historians. But that doesn’t mean that empiricism is the primary focus.

Was there are an ancient mathematician named Euclid? Most likely yes. However, we can’t pose an experiment to verify his existence. We do have the testimony of some ancient writers—although not any contemporary writer, and the textual evidence is tiny compared to the abundant documentary evidence for an ancient person like Jesus of Nazareth. It is also difficult for historians to determine what mathematical ideas were original to Euclid versus simply compilations he collected from many centuries of mathematicians before him.

My point is that while empiricism is certainly employed by historians, there are good reasons why you most historians are not considered scientists and why you don’t find much mention of the scientific method in most undergraduate science textbooks. The best scientists and historians share many methodologies in common but these two domains of academic disciplines do not entail identical methodologies and primary emphases.


Which is not the question. The question is whether history uses the scientific method.

Those writings are empirical evidence.

You seem to be falling prey to the misconception that “empirical evidence” only refers to the sort of evidence used in physics, science and chemistry. It does not.

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What do you mean by “the human element”, and how is this not accessible to empirical study?

One of the problems, @Faizal_Ali, is that ancient documents aren’t always about observation (as in scientific observation). Many are retellings of heroic myths and traditions. Some are mere polemic and propaganda. That’s not empirical evidence. It’s a kind of data but it is the data of what people thought or chose to believe or wished to promote. Not observations of past events.

I’ve known a number of folklore scholars. They employ many methodologies common among historians. But as with historians, I wouldn’t say that folklore scholars focus on empiricism, even though they certainly collect and analyze data.

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