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being a spectator to the mathematization of history

For whatever reasons, we tend to think of societal studies as not so much varieties of science as methodologies of investigation that pull to varying degree from the sciences. (And by “we” i include laypeople, other scientists, and several experts.) Yet economics, human history, politics, linguistics, and similar disciplines have, in many respects, become as describable and predictable as such essentially deterministic disciplines as climatology and cosmology.

Given this backdrop, i seem never to tire of hearing news that some or other discipline traditionally consolidated with the arts or humanities is succumbing to a more overtly scientific protocol. There seem to be several flavors to this trend, but the most palatable is perhaps “quantification”.

Most recently, via The Chronicle, the multidisciplinary approach to the study of human societies ushered into the public discourse by the popular writings of Jared Diamond appears to have given rise to a revival of interest in quantitative history. I, meanwhile, was surprised to learn that this interest was a revival, as apparently the original grand attempt at applying scientific methodology to history suffered from as much bias and misapplication as became its better-remembered counterpart two decades later.

At one level, i am nonplussed by the rather generic-sounding conclusions extracted from Ian Morris in The Chronicle‘s interview. Perhaps because i’m not well-versed in world history, the idea that the shift from divine rulers to divine managers heralded a repercussive turn in human affairs greater than while millennia prior to the Enlightenment does not strike me as revolutionary, and the the opinion that our residual Great Man theories (strangely persistent even in the sciences today) are irrelevant to the grand sweep seems less overzealous than overdue.

At another level, however, there does appear to be a great deal of entrenched resistance to the use of quantitative methods in history, which (Chronicle author Parry speculates) may be related to the (perceived) waning influence of history on the public consciousness. Though, while the global history of humanity may well reduce to some basic axioms of human behavior and the contingencies of geography, the trends of interest to any governing body tend to be more immediate. So i’m not convinced at this point that quantification heralds any surge in the (perceived) relevance of history on culture or policy.

The principle apparently at work is that the scale, depth, and precision of any analysis are constrained not only by the richness of the available data but of our own reliability in interpreting it. This bears not only upon the inference to causal relationships but on our level of confidence that alternative models have been adequately explored and on the availability of the data necessary to do so.

Thomas Haskell, in their aforelinked review of Time on the Cross, laments the “[p]yramiding assumptions” made by coauthor Robert Fogel in an earlier study on the economic indispensability of railroads, in which a slew of necessary but arguable assumptions, often in series rather than in parallel (resulting in multiplicative rather than additive margins of error), bring Fogel to an artificially exact figure for their actual economic impact. A prescient paragraph from their review reads,

Conventional historians tend to dismiss all this painstaking specification of assumptions as misplaced precision, or, worse, a futile aping of scientific method. If a cliometrician were to write the history of the crucifixion, according to a current historical joke, he would begin by counting the nails. But the cliometricians are on strong ground when they reply that conventional historians often get away with fuzzy thinking by leaving their theoretical assumptions implicit, or, as is often the case, simply unexamined.

This suggests a segue into an example at the opposite extreme from Morris: Richard Carrier is completing a two-part appeal for the adoption of Bayesian reasoning (and explicitly not (necessarily) rigorous Bayesian formulations) by historians and illustration of their application to the historicity of Jesus. Polarized in scale from the planet-sized lens of Morris’s analysis, Carrier’s scrutinizes the evidence pertaining to a single person’s life.

Cultural trends barely large enough to serve as details in Morris’s picture become the broader context for Carrier’s. (One (at least) is reminded of Sagan’s celebratory contrast between the outwardly-focused telescope and the inwardly-focused anatomical theatre.) Similarly, the statistical and pattern-gleaning techniques of big data deployed by Morris are in some sense reciprocal to the single formula employed by Carrier: Whereas the former relies on human experts for causal and other logical inferences while relegating the discovery and contextualization of evidence to automated processes, the latter automates the reasoning while deferring on the acquisition and assessment of evidence. Among other things, this resolves the crucimetry-by-nails joke.

Carrier also presents a valuable contrast to (Haskell’s characterization of) Fogel by pushing for applications of Bayes’ Theorem strictly limited in their scope and precision to that warranted by the (traditional) historical assessment of each claim in a sequence. (Indeed, Carrier spends much of his exposition on this emphasis.) He therefore imbues the historians who settle upon the reference classes and probability estimates of each evidential premiss with the final authority for any argument.*

But, anyway, qualified as i am heartily not to pass judgment on these disciplines, i’m content to cut myself off here and watch this newly re-seeded field grow.

* While i’m sure that innumerable parallels might be drawn, the most salient one to me is Barbara Kingsolver’s response to an audience question after her and Stephen Hopp’s reading of excerpts from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The audience member expressed concern that the reforms to farming practices of the sort she champions belie the accumulated wisdom and authority of conventional famers with respect to their own land. Her response was, first and centrally, to affirm the knowledge of land that comes of generations of management and the vital importance of this knowledge to the proper implementation of any methods.

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