Sunday, August 12, 2012


Is History a science or an art? I would argue it is much more a science than we realize.

Science functions as follows- inquisitive folk observe a natural phenomena, which they do not initially understand. They set out on a quest to understand that and related phenomenon. To that end, the inquisitor creates plausible hypothesis. And then starts the collection of evidence to support the hypothesis. This is done through experimentation and keeping sense perception heightened to what they are looking for. If the evidence collected allows the inferring of correctness of the hypothesis, it becomes an accepted theory. One more brick in the wall of Science. Another milestone.

Through the history of mankind science and human knowledge has followed this path to growth. Be it Galileo, Copernicus, Edison , Darwin or innumerable others.

There are some experiments where carrying out of the experiment is hard part and inference is self evident. For example when Edison was inventing the bulb, he had to create different prototypes and then switch on the bulb. If the bulb lights up the experiment would be successful and hypothesis would be theorized. However there are some experiments where  inference is not as simple as toggling a switch and watching for light. For example the Large Hadron Collider experiment. Constructing the experiment and carrying it out was no easy task, but neither is the inference. After all you are trying to find the Higgs Boson, which can not be seen. So large amount of data is collected, which are electrical signals generated from collision of particles, and computer programs go through that data looking for a signature. If the data would pass statistical tests - hypothesis would become the theory. With time if more and more data confirms the hypothesis, scientist would be able to assert with more statistical significance, the correctness of their conjecture.

A close examination would reveal parallels between the act of inference in scientific inquiry and the quest to understand human society and its history. We have a huge number of people on this planet, existing co-dependently for very long, where individuals change through time and ideas that bind them also change through time. Society resembles a mutating organism in that way. It can also be seen as a diversified scientific experiment happening as we breathe. The tough part is Inference. Like a biologist a historian tries to understand the organism that is our society. If we can study our own behavior on a giant scale and through time, and take some knowledge from it, we will have much greater control over our destiny.

History, and the act of writing and re writing of it is not just a statement of facts, but our attempt at inference. History is an attempt not just to create a theory which is an end to itself, but an understanding of individual and collective human nature which itself would evolve over time. The distinction between art and science probably comes from the fact that there is no well defined objective in this exercise, but it resembles science in so many other ways.

No comments:

Post a Comment