Post revisited — Historical science

Science, evidence and inference are at the heart of most technological success. Today the average human is much better fed, healthier, and educated than at any time in history — poverty and atrocity notwithstanding — thanks in large part to technological advances.

So at a time when the media and populist leaders are trying to ignore science and especially inconvenient evidence, this post first published on Alloporus in June 2011 is worth another look…


Historical science

I have just finished Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, germs and steel. The subtitle, A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years, sums up a fascinating tale of not just our past but of the human condition. It is an extraordinary account of both the quirks of human history and the astonishing speed of our emergence to colonize and appropriate the planet.

You cannot go wrong with Diamond’s books. They are accessible, fluid and delivered, as one reviewer put it, with “a combination of expertise, charm and compassion.” The Third Chimpanzee and Collapse are popular science classics.

Although Diamond is a scientist, more precisely an evolutionary biologist, Guns, germs and steel is about history. A courageous attempt to describe and explain why in amongst all the movements of people some groups won, expanding territory and growing in number, while other groups lost, either by being overrun or exterminated.

Diamond’s science take seems to be fuelled by a sense of compassion. He flatly rejects racist explanations for success in favour of a more cause and effect analysis. The conclusions that technology (guns), the biological consequences of living in sedentary groups close to livestock (germs) and growing sufficient food to stay put long enough to work metal (steel) is convincing as it trots through 400 pages to a simple punch line.

But this is not to spoil the plot. It is the epilogue on history as a science that was the most intriguing.

Diamond leaves the detail of human occupation of every corner of the planet and makes a plea for science as knowledge. Science as a means to understanding that is more than the narrow view of controlled experimentation that is the essence of the scientific method.

His plea for historical science, an approach to history that is scientific in its logic. Only not of experimentation, for that is not possible, but for a sifting of the evidence that will allow for predictions and align cause.

This is curious because the book provides historical observation and interpretation that always suffers for want of attribution. It is odd that in an epilogue is a plea that draws attention to the core weakness in the argument. Observation is evidence but only in rare circumstances does it point to cause.

Cause must be surmised and then believed rather than proven in the way we can prove an experimental result.

Perhaps history is history, a catalogue of events and an interpretation of their meaning. And perhaps science is science only when attribution (a hypothesis) can be tested.

None of this makes Guns, germs and steel a lesser book, for the evidence and conclusions Diamond draws need to be read and heeded by us all.

Spongy attribution may explain why such books have only limited influence.


 

What Jared Diamond does is try to explain pattern. And he has always done it well.

What I found troubling about the message at the end of Guns, germs and steel, and still do twenty years on from its publication, is a fundamental difficulty with science. Far too often we have to accept or believe in the cause of an effect rather than be persuaded by a scientific proof.

This happens because so few people truly understand the scientific method, many of my nerdy colleagues among them. There is inference to be had through observation; it just may not be as strong as inference from experiments. It seems that weak inference allows just enough doubt. Throw in a bit of cognitive dissonance and suddenly there is no global warming.

It is incongruous that with all our means to create and use technology, we still find it hard to gather believable evidence. Especially, as weak inference is always better than no inference as a step along the road to understanding.

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