by Neil Godfrey
In the past I have posted on biblical scholars I have caught out promoting and citing Wikipedia articles, books, journal articles, archaeological finds in support of their views that in fact directly contradicted their arguments and claims. Mercifully the names of these scholars have been relatively few. I have posted far more on many excellent biblical scholars who produce informative and interesting work.
But there is one more published biblical scholar who has come to my attention as another charlatan. I would hope that this post will embarrass him enough to pull him up and lead him to mend his ways. I really would much rather argue with a competent and honest scholar than an incompetent charlatan.
Recently Joel Watts referred to “the science of history” in a blog article. My blogging colleague queried the meaning of that phrase, and someone tweeted Joel to protest, so Joel Watts has come back like a steam-roller to squash any suggestion that history is not a science.
Normally this sort of ignorance can be overlooked. But Watts is a PhD student and a published scholar so he has attained the status of being a “public intellectual”. As a public intellectual he deserves to be held accountable for what he publicly writes.
Joel Watts has no specialty in historical studies that I am aware of. I suspect few New Testament scholars have any idea of landmark names in the history and philosophy of historiography like von Ranke, Collingwood, Carr, Elton, White or the various schools of history. Yet he is quite prepared to publish on something he knows nothing about and insult others who do know what they are talking about.
Joel, if there’s one lesson I’d like you to take from this post, it is this: Don’t treat your reading public as fools. They really are smarter than you think. You even explicitly call us stupid, imbeciles, etc. yet you produce blatant charlatanry like the following.
Here is his post:
(I have shortened some of the longer urls)
there are times you just can’t help stupidity… mythicism falls into this category, but…
So Bahumuth, one blessed with a special kind of mythicism, tweeted this regarding my use of the phrase “science of history.
The “science of history”? I don’t know about you, but I studied history when I got my M.A., not my B.S.
Well.. ha ha… boy, that’s really got me there. Whew-who. Man do I have egg on my face.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auxiliary_sciences_of_history …
- http://www.richard-t-hull.com/publications/science_history.pdf …
- http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/cc/scihist.pdf …
- http://ianhesketh.com/science-of-history/ …
Guess he does have a special sort of b.s. as well.
Remember, what is here are links with a variety of resources, including some responses against the idea. If you can’t understand the use of a multitude of sources… oh wait… some do not even get the idea of sources.
So what is Joel’s method here? How does he prove his point that history is a science? It appears he Googles the phrase “history is a science” or similar, collects a quick grab-bag of URLs that pop up, and posts them as a “There! Gotcha!” But he can’t help but notice a few at least don’t support the idea, so he mentions that too.
What he doesn’t grasp is that the whole collection is nothing but a testimony to the fact that history is not today considered a science — the main exceptions being some Marxists. The days when many historians thought of it as a science are now over a century gone.
This is the very method that his good friend and Associate Professor at Butler University has been caught out doing repeatedly — and unrepentantly — with Wikipedia articles on historical method and with citations from historians. How is it possible that such “scholars” continue to do this sort of thing? I can only presume they assume everyone else is as lazy and incompetent as they are and no-one will bother to check their citations.
Unfortunately for Joel Watts I have checked every one of those links and not a single one of them demonstrates that history is a science. Many/most (not “some”) of them actually argue the very opposite! Many plead that they would like it to be a science, and most of these are from the nineteenth century or modern Marxists.
Checking each link
Let’s look at each of those sites and ask what we learn about this scholarly fraud in the process:
This article begins:
Auxiliary (or ancillary) sciences of history are scholarly disciplines which help evaluate and use historical sources and are seen as auxiliary for historical research.
Examples: archaeology, paleography, epigraphy, . . .
Epigraphy is not history. A paleographer is not an historian.
This is an article that acknowledges that it is arguing against the prevailing resistance to the idea that history can be called a science, and it concludes in part:
Historical processes, like any other kind, are deterministic when viewed in their total context. History, insofar as it produces explanations, is a science; insofar as its explanations don’t contain statements of process laws, it is an imperfect science. If its descriptive content is definable in terms of, say , psychological concepts, and its laws are reducible to psychological laws, then history is not a distinct science but is defined at best only by its selective interest in certain individuals of the past.
This is an article discussing and rejecting the nineteenth century hope among many that history could be scientific. It concludes:
For this reason the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be – even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behaviour – seems an attempt to square the circle. It is not a vain hope for an ideal goal beyond human powers, but a chimera, born of lack of understanding of the nature of natural science, or of history, or of both.
This is a publisher’s advertisement for a book about the way many historians of the Victorian era had hoped history could become a real science, but that there were also many who argued against this at the time.
This is another page from the same publisher for the same advertisement.
This is another advertisement for the same book, this time on the author’s (Hesketh’s) own page. The same page contains this description:
Hesketh challenges accepted notions of a single scientific approach to history. Instead, he draws on a variety of sources – monographs, lectures, correspondence – from eminent Victorian historians to uncover numerous competing discourses.
This is a review of a book that does argue history should be thought of as a science, and explains that its author takes inspiration from Marxist historians Bloch and Carr. (The premise of the book is that history is not generally considered a science today — except perhaps for some Marxists. Is Joel Watts a closet Marxist?)
This is a science article about “cliodynamics“. It’s opening line includes:
Advocates of ‘cliodynamics’ say that they can use scientific methods to illuminate the past. But historians are not so sure.
This is another article about cliodynamics. The opening paragraph concedes that most historians will not agree with its argument. It’s second paragraph:
It’s a big claim, and one that is bound to generate little enthusiasm among scientists and positive distrust among historians. For the first group, history is the quintessential mine field, where contingency and human agency rule the day, unlike the tidy behavior of subatomic particles, always the same under easily imposed identical conditions. As for historians, this will be seen as yet another arrogant attempt by a scientist to colonize their field and push aside the humanities (despite Turchin’s claim of potential unification of science and the humanities).
This 1983 article is titled “Toward a Science of History” and that’s exactly what it argues. If history were recognized as a science it would not have been written.
This is an article titled “The Concept of Time in the Science of History” and is a complicated physics paper that was published in 1916. It concludes with a hope that a refined understanding of time will be a proper basis for grounding history theoretically as a science. I don’t think the idea argued here has taken off. It got buried along with the other hopes for history back in 1916.
This is a response to the 1983 article above.
This is an article about a nineteenth century museum that displays documents and artefacts from nineteenth century scholars who hoped that history could become a scientific explanation for human behaviour.
This is an article titled “The Science of History”. It is a lecture dated to February 7, 1864. (McGrath has falsely claimed I have backed Rankean historical approaches on the grounds that I have quoted von Ranke approvingly in two respects: his famous description of history as an art, and his emphasis on a methodical approach to primary and secondary sources. Those two aspects of history are still with all historians today. What we have left behind, long ago, is von Ranke’s and other nineteenth century views that history can give high degrees of Certainty and Truth about a certain world-view.)
This is a “project by students for students”. It’s a nice discussion starter page. It is not a description of how historians view their craft today.
Title of this article: “Lecture four: Marxism, history and the science of perspective”. It is a discussion article from the World Socialist Web asking if a science of history is possible, as Marx suggested. Again, is Watts a Marxist?
This article is by Benedetto Croce, titled “History Brought Under the General Concept of Art”. It is a lecture read out in Naples, March 5, 1893. It was part of the nineteenth century debate over whether history should be seen as a science or an art. concludes:
And when it is proved that narrative is not science but art, how is any harm done, may we ask, to the seriousness of history?
This is a short article posted by “Matthew” arguing that history really is a science. Who’s Matthew? The Evangelist? Why did he feel the need to argue this?
This is another article about cliodynamics.
This is an article in a history journal, titled “The Desirability of Treating History as a Science of Origins”. It is an argument for a case, not a description of a general belief or state of affairs. It was published in 1891.
This is an advertisement for a book titled “The German Historicist Tradition”. It is a history book about the history of historiography — about the nineteenth century era when many tried to make history a science.
This is a discussion of R. G. Collingwood’s arguments about the nature or philosophy of history. Collingwood argued that history and science are essentially the same kinds of knowledge in a 1922 article. Soon afterwards, also in 1922, he published another article arguing for the clear distinction between history and science. Collingwood was thinking his arguments through as he wrote. He changed his mind about history and science within a very short time.
The Science of History (Part 4) — Praxis. This is another article on a page of “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist Reflections“. Is Joel Watts a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist?
This is a page of quotes on the philosophy or theory of history.
The first of these is about the history of science, not history as science.
Some extracts from the others:
History details the differences among events, whereas the sciences focus on similarities. History lacks the sciences’ ideal models, whose usefulness varies inversely with the number of characteristics to which they apply. As an external observer the scientist willingly distorts the individual to make it an instance of the general, but the historian, himself an actor, renounces interest in the general in order to understand the past through the projection of his own experience upon it. It is the scientist’s business to fit the facts to the theory, the historian’s responsibility to place his confidence in facts over theories. (Isaiah Berlin)
Volney anticipates Comte in his comparison of science with history, rigorous standards for validation of historical facts, and sketch of the history of human development. (Jean Gaulmier discussing eighteenth century thinkers.)
History is not a science permitting extrapolation from selected data and recurring similarities in the past. It is a science in the Rankean sense only-the objective and factual study of the unique, unlimited in diversity and detail. (Gerhard Ritter)
Claims by historians that history is both an art and a science are used to avoid the rigor appropriate to the sciences and to remain blind to the imaginative innovations characteristic of modern art. (Hayden White)
This is an article arguing that teaching methods of history should be changed. Lessons are drawn from the way science is taught.
If history is going to approach something of a scientific certainty then it may well be through something akin to Bayesian principles — at least according to Aviezer Tucker. See Carrier’s review of one of his works.
|18th July, 2013: I add here the evidence that Joel’s post was originally declared to be published under a Creative Commons licence that grants permission to copy for purposes of criticism and review and on condition I acknowledge due attribution:|