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On the wisdom of Noah Smith (Bret Devereaux on the historic method)

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  1. skybrian
    This is a takedown of an essay by Noah Smith, but more importantly it's about what historians try to do and what they believe they can't do. [...] [...]

    This is a takedown of an essay by Noah Smith, but more importantly it's about what historians try to do and what they believe they can't do.

    [...] generally the social sciences aim to establish general rules for how societies function which have strong future predictiveness; laws of the workings of society akin to the laws of the workings of physics whereby we can predict with quite a lot of precision where a ball will go when thrown; for the sake of clarity I’m going to call these ‘laws of general applicability.’ By contrast the focus of historians is on the past itself; while historians of past decades often toyed with the idea of ‘grand narratives’ akin to the social sciences’ laws of general applicability, these have long since been abandoned by all but a few because the exceptions kept overwhelming the general rules. Of course historians hope that the work we do to create knowledge of the past will be useful in the present, but the discipline prioritizes the former over the latter. As a result, historians generally reject the creation of laws of general applicability, insisting that while the past is a useful teacher, efforts at strict predictability will always be overwhelmed by contingency, context and unexpected variables.


    The present-tense implications of historical research generally come in two kinds: either the history of a thing (usually an institution) that still exists is used to explain how that thing came to exist as it does or the history of something in the past is presented as analogous to something similar in the present, such that the former is a useful tool when thinking about the latter. [...]


    We tend to refuse to engage in counterfactual analysis because we look at the evidence and conclude that it cannot support the level of confidence we’d need to have. This is not a mindless, Luddite resistance but a considered position on the epistemic limits of knowing the past or predicting the future.

    Instead historians are taught when making present-tense arguments to adopt a very limited kind of argument: Phenomenon A1 occurred before and it resulted in Result B, therefore as Phenomenon A2 occurs now, result B may happen. Tyrants in the past have made multiple attempts to seize power, therefore tyrants in the present may as well, therefore some concern over this possibility is warranted. The result is not a prediction but rather an acknowledgement of possibility; the historian does not offer a precise estimate of probability (in the Bayesian way) because they don’t think accurately calculating even that is possible – the ‘unknown unknowns’ (that is to say, contingent factors) overwhelm any system of assessing probability statistically. [...]

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