The Relation of Science and History

We sometimes hear people speak of "the science of history".  But is history a science?  Can history be a science?  Or perhaps the Euler diagram should work the other way: rather than history being a type, or subset of science, so that the word "science" includes "history" as one of its many elements, perhaps history should instead include science.  Of course we do already speak, sometimes, of "the history of science".  Which, if either, of these terms should be the more totalizing, and which merely a useful constituent part, or tool?

Of course scientific techniques are used in history.  We are all aware, for instance, of radiocarbon dating and x-ray fluorescence; perhaps more obscure are inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, palynology, electron-spin resonance for dating teeth, and so on.  This kind of research is to be lauded and expanded.

Notwithstanding this, there are somewhat convincing arguments to suggest that whatever scientific tools historians may make use of, history itself can never be a science.  Science is, after all, concerned with repeatable results.  Replication is one of the cornerstones of scientific research.  If today I burn ammonium dichromate in Buenos Aires, the chemical reaction should produce chromium oxide, nitrogen, and water.  If, next week, you perform the same experiment in Shenzhen, you should get the same products in the same ratios.  Three thousand years from now, someone should get the same results from the same experiment in Antananarivo, Madagascar, and the same should hold in a billion places all over the world for the next several billion years.  For that matter, it should work on the surface of some planet in a distant galaxy, so long as we keep pressure, temperature, and other variables constant.

But history is not repeatable in this way.  A historical event happens once.  Another event, in another location, at a different point in history, may be very similar, and it may be useful and interesting to compare them and contrast them, but they are not the same event, and it would be irresponsible for a historian to say that they were.  The adage that "history repeats itself" is a lie.  If we take Nietzsche's notion of eternal recurrence literally, as a fact about the world, it is simply false.  Every single event that happens will never, ever come back.  This is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics.

Therefore, the methods of doing science and doing history are not the same.  It is the responsibility of a scientist to come up with often necessarily ingenious ways of isolating the experimental variable, and therefore eliminating any hidden variables that may be have some causal connection to the experiment - environmental factors that may come in and contaminate the process.  The historian's responsibility is the very opposite of this: it is not to exclude, but to include all of the complex context of the event she is studying into the analysis of the event.


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