Saturday, December 27, 2014

A thought about knowledge of the past

Hunts will always be remembered in the words of the hunters until lions learn to write.
How do we make sense of the world and its past? Billions of people living over a surface so huge no one will ever see it all, behaving all the time in their billions of individual paths, subject to literal winds of change as well as cultural, economic, political and social forces which we may jointly create but which surpass our understanding.

Homo sapiens evolved from pretty simple minded beings that recognized food from poison well enough to survive, and recognized threats well enough to avoid being eaten before they could reproduce. Biological evolution is about extracting simple messages from the confusion of sensory input, which in turn is an extraction of messages about a local environment.

Homo sapiens is a social species, and we have evolved biologically to behave socially. Our societies have evolved some means of understanding complexity that the simple hunter-gather groups 10,000 years ago did not possess. I suspect that those means involve radical simplification of actors, events, and causal relations.

We are story tellers. We select a point to make, select a situation we think suitable for making the point, select actions and actors relevant to the point, impute causal factors relating events to outcomes, and tell ourselves the story. All to the  good, but perhaps the danger is believing too much in a specific story we have made up about the past. All too often our stories of the past are but retrospective rationalizations based on randomly chosen.

How do Historians Tell Stories About the Past?

I think historians too are story tellers, seeking to make points in their narratives about the past. They too select events, structure them, selecting characters from among many, and impute causality among the events.

Historians are experienced in comparing information from primary sources, recognizing that people do not always recall the past correctly, nor to they always describe what they recall accurately; people perhaps often present themselves in better light than they deserve.

Historians should also be knowledgeable about secondary sources, benefiting from what others have studied and understood about the past. So too, historians should tell stories informed by data and by the other social sciences -- economics, political science, geography, psychology. Indeed, they may be informed by modern medical knowledge.

Finally, historians benefit from peer review. Importantly, they write for an audience of other historians, subjecting their descriptions of past events and actors to the critiques of other historians, allowing their interpretations of causality to be compared with those made by others. Indeed, the lessons that they draw from history are sifted by other historian, with only some surviving into text books or popular history to inform the public.

How does Natural Science Differ from Stories We Usually Tell About the Past?

Taxonomy is the basis of science. Scientists work to assure that things that are judged to be the same are indeed the same. Astronomy separates stars from planets and moons and from galaxies. Systematic biology has developed over centuries to learn to identify species by their genetic makeup, separating different species that have converged to similar appearance and sibling species that have diverged little from common ancestors. Chemists have learned to differentiate elements from compounds, and even isotopes of the same elements; as they have learned to purify compounds from mixtures. Physicists have identified many sub-atomic particles and forces, learning to identify them and to recognize different manifestations of the same forces. Thus science is much more accurate in saying things are the same or different that we are in telling stories about the past.

Science is prospective, not simply retrospective. When possible science advances through the generation of hypotheses from theory, where each hypothesis can be be tested by controlled observations; ideally, data will show the hypothesis to be false, tending to disprove they hypothesis and thus the theory from which it is drawn. Experiments should be controlled to eliminate as many sources of error as possible. Moreover, they should be replicated. Ultimately theory, the way the hypothesis is drawn, the experiments, and the inferences drawn from them should be subject to expert peer review.

Thus strong methods have been institutionalized within the natural sciences to increase the confidence that can be placed in accepted theories and hypotheses. Moreover, the body of controlled experimental data has grown over time, and is increasingly available for use by the scientific community.

Thus the stories that natural scientists tell us tend to be more worthy of confidence than the stories we tell ourselves, or the stories others tell us based on less formal taxonomies, fewer controlled experiments, and the lack of a process focusing on the falsification of hypotheses.

Natural scientists are of course people, and as such capable of false dealing and error. Perhaps, however, working in an institution that has strong mechanisms to increase the confidence in assertions (and sanctions for falsehood and error) they are less likely than some others to make statements from their science that are false or erroneous.

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