History is not science

Over at The Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick has a very interesting post entitled Theology is not History.  In it, she says (among other things):

I am reminded that in Europe, historians like myself characterize their research and writing as “scientific”. I have stayed away from this characterization myself, feeling that “science” is the field of biology and physics.

As someone who was trained as a research scientist, I agree with her.  The scientific method requires that the researcher looks at what is happening in the real world, develops a(n) hypothesis or a set of hypotheses about why it is happening and sets up controlled experiments to test whether or not the hypotheses are correct.   There is no way that historians can do this.  They can’t say “we think the causes of WWII were X, Y and Z” and then go back to the 1930s and change the conditions to see if WWII still happens without X or without Y.  Much psychological and sociological research also follows the scientific method, although it is sometimes difficult to control as many of the circumstances as researchers would like because research ethics committees won’t allow some things to be done or not done on human beings (and with good reason).

Good historians are careful, methodical investigators, but they are not scientists because they have no way of controlling the circumstances they are investigating in order to test their hypotheses.  The more contemporary the history being written, the better able the historian is to take into consideration context and various biases in their analysis of the material available to them, but they still can’t change the events of the past.  Historians of early Christianity and the various other things that come under the heading “Ancient History” can only work with the texts available, knowing that in some situations this gives them access to incredibly skewed data. Their analysis can still tell us some very valuable things, but it is not science.


6 thoughts on “History is not science

  1. Hm, by that standard human geneticists are not scientists either. I take no particular stance one way or another as to whether historians are scientists, but I am reluctant to agree that the ability to set up controlled experiments is any sort of sine qua non of the category “scientist.”

  2. Hi Judy,

    I would argue that there are some areas in Theology/History where the methodologies can at least approach the scientific (Synoptic Problem and the study of other literary relationships), particularly when the observable data is given a chance before refuge is taken in the lost and hypothetical.

  3. Greg,

    Fair point. Although human geneticists build on a range of controlled breeding experiments in animals and have the ability to look at the genetic makeup of human beings through tissue sampling. They also usually have access to a more complete data set and are fairly sure what is missing from it. Students of ancient history have none of these things.


    I guess this is related to the arguments from the quantitative researchers that people doing qualitative research are not doing “science”.


    However, as someone who has served on various human research ethics committees for nearly 15 years, I see significant differences in the level of control available to traditional scientists and ancient historians.

    I had a very nasty shock when I moved from “hard” science, where I had been taught that if I asked the right questions and constructed the appropriate experiments, I would normally be able to come up with an answer. One of my early tasks in theological studies was to present a tutorial paper on the unity and diversity in the Synoptic gospels. I worked very, very hard at it and was absolutely devastated that I had not been able to reach an answer. I was sure I was going to fail. A decade down the track, the tutor still assured me that I had presented the best paper on the topic that he had ever heard (I think he meant from an undergraduate student).

    I learned from that experience that in working with early christian documents, we simply do not have access to enough reliable data to work the way I was trained as a scientist. Which doesn’t mean that the conclusions reached are not valid or valuable. Just that they aren’t “scientific” in the generally accepted English-speaking definition of the word.

    It occurs to me, however, that Europeans may define science differently. In German there seems to be a broader set of disciplines that are included as science. And of course I can’t think at the moment what makes me say this – it is too late at night for me to come up with the German words that I’m looking for and I don’t have time to do an extensive dictionary search.

    Some of the linguistics specialists at my university are doing some interesting research into how the way we use language and the way we think about things are interrelated. I attended a paper where someone presented research on how people in different cultures name and perceive colours. Some cultures name shades that are clearly different to me and most other westerners as the same thing, and make distinctions between colours that I and most other westerners would call the same. The distinctions that April raised between US and European historians may be similar.

  4. Was it not the NZ physicist Ernst Rutherford who quipped “all science is either physics or stamp collecting”? He would have agreed about history (and theology).

    I also recall one of my physics lectures wherein the lecturer began by explaining that one could tell that psychology is not a science because their first lecture was invariably an attempt to explain that psychology is a science. If the subject needed such an explanation, he argued, it was not obviously science!

  5. I think Rutherford might have been just a tad biased towards his discipline. 🙂

    Thanks to those of you who have helped me to clarify my thinking on this. I think that what I was trying to say earlier is that scientific research is empirical and history isn’t. Merriam-Webster defines empirical as:

    1: originating in or based on observation or experience
    2: relying on experience or observation alone often without due regard for system and theory
    3: capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment

    While human geneticists can’t actually conduct controlled experiments, they can observe things and what they observe replicates over time. Keeping records where couples with the same characteristics have children enables geneticists to determine the inheritance pattern.

    The same historical circumstances do not come around a second time, so there is no way of checking or validating historical observations. Historians can do their research systematically and carefully and professionally. They make a very valuable contribution to human existence. I think, however, that to say that history is a science is to take something away from both science and history.

  6. Judy,

    We shouldn’t be too concerned about distinctions between science and research in general, since it’s all about seeking the truth by whatever means available, realizing that the correctness of one’s answers are less secure in some cases than in others. We can accept that meteorites are rocks, mostly from the confines of our solar system, that collided with Earth, even if one cannot perform a controlled experiment to verify that fact. Instead, we can use logical reasoning from analysis of related data to verify it, and that’s enough to call it a scientific fact. It is the interpretation of all the available data that matters most, along with interpretation of what is available and acceptable for scholarly study.

    Archaeological artifacts are among the available data for verifying or disproving biblical hypotheses, except when an artifact’s venue/context of discovery is considered questionable. Then interpretation comes into play, and it can be influenced by human attitudes, religious beliefs, political correctness, etc., which determine their acceptability for study. Similarly with ancient writings, Gnostic gospels and such, whose originals have long since been lost. We may not know whom they were written by, when, where or why, yet we may study their translations and transcriptions if we consider them acceptable.

    The Synoptic Problem is among those we apparently cannot solve empirically, yet it may be studied with methodology that comes close to being scientific, as Richard pointed out. But again psychological attitudes intervene. Consider that if the external evidence is given consideration, namely that a Hebraic Matthew was the first gospel, which preceded Greek Mark, then the anti-Semitism within Mark stands out as being very blatant, much more so than if Mark is considered primary to Matthew. Even the excessive use of the “Messianic secret” in Mark can be well explained by this. However, this is unacceptable religiously and politically. Hence the numerous other indications of Matthean priority over Mark, and the numerous shaky and reversible assumptions that promote Markan priority, must be ignored or downplayed.

    Instead, we should be seeking historical truth using all available data whether acceptable or unacceptable, regardless of how it may affect our scholarly reputations, whenever the unacceptability is discerned as being an artificial barrier to true research.

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