The value of history

History, mosaic by Frederick Dielman. House Members Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.
History, mosaic by Frederick Dielman. House Members Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

Tom Chivers has a particularly misguided post up The Telegraph arguing that science is better than history.  Given how under siege many in the humanities feel themselves to be today, this post is unnecessarily adversarial.  Chivers does claim to recognize that history is a valuable endeavor (albeit limited in his view), but argues that if you only had time to read one kind of book, it should be books on science rather than history.

Now, I think anyone familiar with this blog knows that I have a strong and passionate interest in science.  But saying that science should be preferred over history strikes me as saying that veggies should be preferred over grains, that sleeping should be preferred over exercise, or that reading books should be preferred over reading the news.  In other words, it strikes me as an inane incoherent recommendation.

The fact is, if you want to be a well rounded learned human being, you need to be well read in a lot of subjects.  I’m occasionally amazed by the ignorance experts in a particular subject show outside of their area of expertise.  A perfect example of this is the frustration many scientists often articulate when trying to understand why the political process doesn’t go their way.  Here’s a hint for them, read more history.

For example, many science enthusiasts often complain bitterly about the limited resources devoted to space exploration.  They often compare space exploration to the European Age of Exploration.  If they knew more about that historical period, they’d know that economic incentives were at the heart of it, and that similar incentives will need to be found to bring in the full space age.

I love science, but when it comes to lessons I can make use of in my daily life, I’ve found history to be far more informative.  When dealing with difficult and demanding people, reading about how figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, or Dwight Eisenhower handled similar situations have given me insights into human nature that I’ve never gotten from scientific books, including sociological and psychological ones.

Reading history also allows me to put modern events in perspective.  Knowing that many famous historical leaders were in fact politicians, and often had to compromise and make ugly decisions to get things done, makes the all too human decisions and mistakes of our current leaders much more understandable.

My feelings about the health of our modern government and society, of the scandals, ugly politics, and divided government, are much less pessimistic with the knowledge that, historically, our politics aren’t really that out of whack, particularly when compared to early 19th century politics, when sexual scandals, political smear campaigns, corrupt bargains, and even deadly duels were part of the process.

And of course, when assessing the doomsayers about how our civilization is on the verge of collapse, it helps tremendously to know something about the history of other civilizations before their collapse.  Understanding the Roman civil wars, societal shocks, and what true border insecurity and complete breakdown of civil structure really look like, allows us to look at the current state of our civilization with a much more balanced view.

Understanding how radically different the norms and mores of ancient societies were from modern ones gives valuable insights into which of those norms and mores are likely to be universal, and which are merely cultural convention.  For instance, knowing that homosexuality was widely accepted in ancient societies, that prohibitions against it were largely a historical accident based on which religion came to dominance, put a new light on how I regarded it.

And my understanding of science itself is informed by reading about the history of science and philosophy.  The often cautionary posts I make about speculative scientific theories are informed by knowing the history of such theories, that most of them have been wrong, not because of poor thinking by the authors of those theories, but simply because of the lack of information they had at the time.

Yes, you can’t use historical insights to make sure-fire predictions, but that doesn’t mean they’re worthless.  The 2008-2009 financial crisis was bad, but it would have been much worse if Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, had not been an expert not just of banking and economics, but of the history of the Great Depression and all the mistakes that the US Federal Reserve made in the 20s and 30s.

Personally, I think history, when done well, is a type of social science.  Historical methods weigh different sources of evidence for events and attempt to construct the most probable theory of what actually happened.  Those theories are subject to falsification if new sources of information become available.  So recommendations to read science instead of history strike me as incoherent, unless one wants to define science only as the natural sciences, in which case it’s just narrow minded.

History tells us where we came from, and gives us insights into where we are today, and where we’re going.  Science also gives us those things, and on a broader and deeper scale of course.  But you need the insights from the scope of human history and the scope of deep time and space to have a full appreciation of your place in it.

Of course, everyone can’t be well read in every subject.  If your time is limited, my recommendation is to get the basics down in areas like science, history, politics, economics, and any other subject you’re interested in.  Recommendations to favor one area of knowledge over another should be happily ignored.

7 thoughts on “The value of history

  1. I definitely agree – actually, some of my favorite books are those that deal in both history and science. I feel like I can learn a lot more about present science if I understand it’s context in the progression of the discipline. Looking at what we presently know in isolation takes away a lot of what’s so beautiful about science – how it writes and rewrites itself in its effort to accurately describe reality. Cutting the present out of that progression could harmfully concretize what we know by pulling it out of its temporal flow of lessons learned and new discoveries.


  2. Reblogged this on chrissyboy76's Blog and commented:
    It’s not science versus history!. Taking such an ignorant science is superior view more important than history, illustrates what is wrong with some science advocates today. In short they think they are god and can play as such.
    The author of this article is absolutely correct in stating that history is a subject worthy of study.
    Indeed it is history that has shaped science not the other way around. Before we had science we had history , it is this a feeble argument!


  3. Excellent post. It seems to me that science and history complement each other. While there are overlaps in that discoveries in biology might render a certain interpretation of history more or less plausible, the respective disciplines aim to answer different questions and ask different questions.


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