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The arrogance of scientific history Our glorious past was about more than just climate change

Did a volcano doom the Roman empire? (Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty Images)

Did a volcano doom the Roman empire? (Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis/Getty Images)


May 22, 2024   8 mins

In the Fifties, the science fiction author Isaac Asimov published perhaps the most optimistic vision ever of history as an exact science. In his Foundation series (recently adapted for television), he imagined a distant future in which a cadre of “psycho-historians” developed historical methods so precise that they could not only explain the past, but accurately predict political and social change centuries into the future.

Could history ever become a truly scientific discipline? In the past few years, a number of thinkers have found new ways to say yes. I am not so sure. Visions of history as science go back long before Asimov: during the Enlightenment, philosophers impressed by the advances being made in natural science wondered if they could discover laws of social change equivalent to the physical laws governing such things as motion or gas pressure. Looking at the indigenous peoples of the Americas, they saw similarities to the ancient Greeks and Romans and concluded that all human societies followed the same basic path of historical evolution from “savagery” to civilised modernity (exemplified, of course, by themselves).

In the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claimed to have discovered a different universal pattern of historical change: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Engels, in particular, did not hesitate to call history a science. Throughout the 20th century, both Marxist and non-Marxist social scientists developed elaborate quantitative models to explain why, for instance, revolutions broke out in some times and places but not in others. All these approaches had in common the assumption that throughout history impersonal forces greatly circumscribed the scope of human free will. As Marx wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.”

But in the late 20th century, social scientific model-making lost its attraction for most historians. Following the so-called “cultural turn”, the discipline increasingly looked to literary studies and cultural anthropology for inspiration and experimented with “microhistories” of single individuals or incidents, such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, or Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre. History-writing of this sort, grounded in a close reading of texts, did not easily lend itself to sweeping theories of change over the centuries. Historical sociologists continued to pursue the work of model-building, but increasingly in isolation from their colleagues in history departments.

More recently, the field’s turn towards “global history” did partially revive interest in the large-scale, quantitative modelling of change. Kenneth Pomeranz’s influential 2000 book The Great Divergence, for instance, developed a theory of why certain countries successfully industrialised that placed heavy emphasis on the availability of coal and other natural resources. But much of the new “global” work is deeply bound up with issues of race and has a distinctly moralising character. The authors tend to hold European imperialism and white supremacy responsible for the ills of the modern world (not without reason, of course). But moral responsibility and blame can only be imputed to those who had the ability to choose — not to those who acted as the blind instruments of impersonal historical forces.

At the same time, new attempts at a scientific history have begun to appear. A field calling itself “cliodynamics”, spearheaded by the polymath biologist Peter Turchin, has attracted considerable attention, in part because in 2010 Turchin predicted that the United States was heading for massive instability exactly 10 years later. Turchin argues that history can become a “mathematised science” and explicitly compares himself to Asimov’s “psycho-historians”. Meanwhile, an increasing number of historians have been using data compiled by actual scientists about past physical changes in the world (especially climate change) to offer new explanations for political and social events such as the fall of the Roman Empire. For the moment, most historians remain either ignorant or sceptical of these new approaches. But should they once again embrace the banner of science?

Cliodynamics is strongly reminiscent of the social scientific approaches of the mid-20th century. Peter Turchin’s complex mathematical models of social change put great weight on what he calls “elite overproduction” as one warning sign of coming social strife. As he puts it in his new book End Times, when the “social pyramid has gotten top-heavy”, with “too many ‘elite aspirants’ competing for a fixed number of positions in the upper levels of politics and business”, civic cohesion weakens and social fracture grows. The sociologists Seymour Martin Lipset and Reinhard Bendix came to some of the same conclusions in their classic study Social Mobility in Industrial Society, published in 1959, which in turn inspired many historians of revolutions.

More generally, Turchin puts far greater weight on material factors — above all, the competition for wealth and power — than on ideology, culture or sheer accident in explaining why societies undergo extreme stress. For example, he argues that the American Civil War was not “fought over slavery”, but rather “over ‘slavocracy’” — that is to say, to challenge the wealth and power of slave-owning elites. In a previous book, he and a collaborator offered a long and detailed explanation of why France fell into chaos during the Wars of Religion of the 16th century without discussing… religion. Their assumption — shared by French Marxist historians of a previous generation — is that the Reformation would not have caused such strife in the absence of underlying social pressures. To quote the Marxist Janine Estèbe, writing in 1975, “social antagonisms” were “covered by a religious cloak”. But as Natalie Zemon Davis replied to her, simply pointing to such antagonisms tells us very little about how and why people resorted to violence. “We must stretch our definition of ‘social tensions’ well beyond the issue of wealth and poverty,” Davis wrote. “Rather than being ‘covered by a religious cloak,’ the social face of the Reformation is as real as its obverse, the spiritual face, different sides of the same coin.”

“The idea that human history, in all its fantastic variation, can be reduced to a science remains a chimera.”

Turchin makes great claims for the mathematical rigour of cliodynamics, but in fact for his model to work he has to put the math aside and resort to some very traditional — indeed, commonplace — historical interpretations. For instance, he argues that the same combination of material factors that led to the French Wars of Religion and the American Civil War also threatened Great Britain with civic strife in the 1830s. But Britain avoided revolution. Why? Because emigration served as a safety valve; because of intelligent institutional reforms by a series of flexible governments; and because workers managed to claim new rights for themselves. These points can be found in most textbooks. In addition, like his social scientific predecessors, Turchin gives too little attention to the dynamism of historical events. The American Civil War may not have started as a war to end slavery, but at a certain point, as the fighting intensified, it became one. Why? The answer can’t be found simply by measuring the forms of social stress that led to the initial crisis.

Another problem for cliodynamics is that so much historical data is simply unreliable. In the earlier book, in a chapter on medieval France, Turchin and his collaborator repeatedly acknowledged that “demographic data are hard to come by for the medieval period… the data are very crude… there are no systematic wage data… the Forez and Bar-sur-Seine data cannot be directly compared”, and so forth. Nonetheless, on the basis of a plausible but by no means certain data set, they ventured confident conclusions about the way a large decline in the population of French nobles solved the problem of “elite overproduction” and helped end a period a severe political instability.

Despite the exaggerated claims, Turchin’s work can be serious and thought-provoking, and follows in a distinguished line of social scientific analysis about the origins of social crises. But it tells us much less about how such crises subsequently develop, how they can lead to such different outcomes and how they generate such wildly different ideas and ideologies. And the crises are themselves only a part of the hugely rich and complex tapestry of the human past. To reduce “history” to the mathematical modelling of social crisis would be impoverishing in the extreme.

If few practising historians have yet embraced the cliodynamic version of scientific history, more and more are approaching the past with techniques borrowed from the natural sciences, often in collaboration with actual scientists. A fascinating recent article in The Guardian by Jacob Mikanowski surveys this new work: examples range from genetic testing of leather to see if the ancient Scythians tanned human skin (they did), to measuring air pollution as recorded in ice cores to see when Roman silver production crashed (the third century CE), to discovering that a nun who died in 1100 had traces of expensive lapis lazuli on her teeth — probably transferred while painting an illuminated manuscript. Mikanowski might also have cited the innovative use of historical linguistics by historians of medieval Africa, who use reconstructions of past vocabulary to trace the movement of peoples across the continent.

Overall, this new work falls into two broad categories. One is principally empirical and aims at simply determining such things as past temperature variations, drought conditions or the movement of peoples, animals, and commodities. Especially when the historians in question also draw on archaeological evidence, they are here following in a distinguished, long-established tradition. After all, to study the history of peoples who left no written records we have no choice but to turn to various forms of physical evidence. But as techniques have improved and evidence has accumulated, some historians have grown more ambitious — often by introducing climate change as a key driver of historical change. In perhaps the best-known recent example, the historian Kyle Harper suggested that the Roman Empire flourished and expanded in large part thanks to “a phase of warm, wet and stable climate”, only to run out of luck when the climate turned unstable, and a set of deadly infectious diseases rampaged across the Mediterranean world. Harper’s dissertation advisor, Harvard’s Michael McCormick, has offered similar arguments, and enthusiastically embraced the new marriage of history and science. The partnership, he told Mikanowski, is currently at the same stage as astronomy “when Galileo first looked up with his telescope”.

The Georgetown historian Dagomar Degroot has offered a particularly engaging example of how “proxy data” collected by scientists can enrich our understanding of even well-documented parts of human history. In his book The Frigid Golden Age, he showed that while the early modern “Little Ice Age” posed massive challenges for all European societies, some adapted and thrived. The Dutch in particular demonstrated considerable resilience in devising techniques for dealing with record cold (perfecting ice skates, for instance). They also mastered the period’s new Atlantic wind patterns to shorten voyages for their commercial fleet and to devise effective naval tactics against enemy fleets. But while Degroot collaborated with scientists to ascertain past temperatures (for instance through a study of tree rings — narrower rings indicate colder winters), he took most of his evidence from traditional documentary sources.

Where such sources are less plentiful, or more ambiguous, the work of interpretation becomes harder, and the ability to draw “scientific” conclusions more dubious. Historians of late antiquity, for instance, have devoted enormous attention to the year 536, which Science magazine in 2018 labelled “the worst year to be alive”. Evidence from tree rings and ice cores indicates that as a result of large-scale volcanic eruptions the world experienced the coldest summer of the past two millennia. Some written records, meanwhile, suggest that at the same time the deadly “Justinianic plague” devastated Mediterranean societies. McCormick, Harper and others speculate that this one-two punch shattered the late antique world, marking the real fall of the Roman Empire. Its surviving, eastern portion, ruled from Constantinople, moved away from the Roman heritage, embracing a fervent, zealous Christianity — in a word, turning Byzantine. But other historians have countered that the plague did not in fact have world-changing effects, and that 536 may not have been particularly disastrous. One of them, Lee Mordechai of the Hebrew University, is currently writing a book arguing that the “536 event” has served as a sort of blank screen onto which the present day projects its own fears of climate disaster.

“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the most capacious scientific history writing.”

But in any case, even as these new partnerships open up new perspectives, they can still only illuminate a relatively limited range of subjects. Climate historians define the “Little Ice Age” as having lasted from the late Middle Ages to the early 19th century: a period that includes the Renaissance, the Reformation, the European encounter with the Americas, the creation of the slave plantation, the Enlightenment, the American, French and Haitian Revolutions, Britain’s rise to global supremacy, the birth of Romanticism, the start of the Industrial Revolution, and much, much more. Climate change may have served as a contributing factor to many of these things, but it cannot serve as the principal explanatory factor for any of them. Human history is simply too gloriously, too colourfully and often too tragically complex to be reducible to single variables of this sort. Climatic variation, like “elite overproduction”, can help illuminate some parts of the canvas, but not others. Any explanation of change requires a willingness to bring together very different, and often incommensurable phenomena: social, economic, political, cultural, religious, environmental. While scientific methods can cast light on some of them, the idea that human history itself, in all its fantastic variation, can be reduced to a science remains a chimera.

Even Isaac Asimov recognised that sheer chance could play an outsized role in history. In his Foundation series, the “psycho-historians” forecast the fall of a galactic empire, and for centuries events turned out exactly as they had predicted. But then came along an unexpected development: the rise of a mutant human with sinister telepathic powers known as “the Mule”, who started carving out an empire of his own. Suddenly, none of the predictions panned out. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the most capacious scientific history writing.


David A. Bell is a history professor at Princeton with a particular interest in the political culture of Enlightenment and revolutionary France. His latest book is Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution.

DavidAvromBell

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
28 days ago

Historiography often tells us more about the historians than it does about the history.
Besides, everyone knows that all history is simply a continuation of the Batrachomyomachia by other means.

J Bryant
J Bryant
28 days ago

“Batrachomyomachia.”
If nothing else, I learned a new word today, although not one I’m sure I can pronounce.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
28 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Then try the German equivalent, Froschmäusekrieg

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
28 days ago

If I recall correctly, and I may not as it has been forty plus years since reading the Foundation series, Hari Seldon, the predictive maths genius in the book actually had a shadowy organisation operating in the background to ensure that his predictions came good.

In any case scientific history sounds a bit suspect. I’ve recently reread Jared Diamonds “Guns, Germs and Steel” which is a very entertaining and holistic view of how we got to where we are today and also his “Collapse” on why societies fail. Climate change features in that, certainly, but as only one of five factors that determine failure. I think there is a tedious tendency these days to scream ‘climate change’ as the reason for everything, which ultimately is not very scientific.

Martin M
Martin M
28 days ago

Hari Seldon, the predictive maths genius in the book actually had a shadowy organisation operating in the background to ensure that his predictions came good“.
I read it about 40 years ago as well, and that concurs with my recollection of it. Still, if you are going to do that, the “predictions” are not as powerful as they seem (unsurprising, since making anything other than very short term predictions about a chaotic system is fraught with difficulty).

Matt Woodsmith
Matt Woodsmith
28 days ago

‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ is great! You remember Foundation correctly – in Asimov’s later books it’s revealed that Psychohistory is a sham front for the secret Second Foundation, a group of essentially psychic technocrats who are controlling everything.

Martin M
Martin M
28 days ago
Reply to  Matt Woodsmith

“….a group of essentially psychic technocrats who are controlling everything“.
Imagine if we had those here!

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
28 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

…instead of psychotic bureaucrats.

B Davis
B Davis
28 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Now THAT is really really really hard to imagine!

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago

It’s not too difficult to shoehorn the facts into place when working backwards.. the real test comes in using your results to predict the future.. as with Regression your prediction can be THE most likely but still more likely to be wrong than right.. The trick is to take these things with a grain of salt and not make a damn religion out of them, eg turn faltering science into dogmatic Scientism!
Remember: what makes scientific facts scientific is that they are open to scrutiny and liable to be adjusted, altered, even abandoned. And so it is time for science to be seen for what it is.. an imperfect tool applicable to the study of inanimate matter and (unexplained) forces.. When applied elsewhere its results are likely to be significantly inaccurate, eg biological evolution and more especially Consciousness and Human emotions which drive lives and so history.

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
28 days ago

A fascinating read. I’ve always found these kinds of reductive claims on the human condition to be more than a little hubristic, and I’m glad someone far more educated and informed than I seems to think so too.

Ian_S
Ian_S
28 days ago

The Left already have their own version of cliodynamics. They can smugly announce in an instant if your actions are on the right side of history or not.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
28 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

Either on the right side, or the far right side, apparently.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

Of course they can also do the same thing based on facts, ethics, morals and decency, ie as well as smugly..

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
25 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

..oh, really? ..only smugness works you say? Isn’t that view a trifle jaundiced though?

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
25 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

Need two sides of your brain to survive .
It is bicameral; perhaps you should look for your other part .

J Bryant
J Bryant
28 days ago

Every generation produces new historians, and they all seem to interpret the past through the lens of contemporary obsessions. So, over the span of many generations, we’re left with a kaleidoscope of interpretations which, I suspect, reflect the multi-causal nature of history.
We’re currently living through a period of great change. I try to understand it by reading articles in publications such as Unherd, but at some point the question of causality seems insurmountable. A bunch of things happen more or less simultaneously and it no longer seems feasible to ask what was the proximate cause of our current social dysfunction.
Perhaps that’s the true root of our current social dysfunction: there is no clear, definable “why”; there is only the muddied reality which is profoundly disturbing to most people, so they improvise explanations, even secular religions, to calm their nerves.
Anyway, a most thought-provoking article.

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
28 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

What if social dysfunction exists only the minds of people who need to write for a living and the rest of us make the error of believing them?

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago
Reply to  Ralph Hanke

I think (!) the technical term for that is ‘Reality!

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

My own view is that ‘exhaustion’ in the broadest sense explains a lot.. Humans, at least the bright ones, seek change; and change means upheaval. So I see history as a cycle of exhaustion seeking change.
Of course elites, sitting pretty, oppose change while the poor tired of poverty (ie exhausted) seek change to improve their lot.
Exhaustion includes boredom, tedium, overwork etc. but also enlightenment : tired of believing the lies and tedious propaganda of the elites!
If elites ate termed the Predatory Class it makes even more sense..

B Davis
B Davis
28 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Sort of.
But so-called elites (and they vary by place and time and context) oppose change only if by opposing they benefit. If they benefit, instead, by pushing change, then equally they push.
In the end, though, elites behave just like the rest of us. We all tend to act in our own self-interest.
If it is in my self-interest to believe that I am lied to by elites, then I so believe. If it is in my self-interest (let’s say I’m the Editor of the NYTimes) to perpetuate and enhance lies, then that’s what I do.
Everyone ‘preys’ upon opportunity, even if the opportunity is using an expired coupon to get a free ice cream cone.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
25 days ago
Reply to  B Davis

I agree the Predatory Class will of course push for change if it suits, but since the status quo is how they made their millions they oppose change. Thinking more on it though I guess when they see opportunities to turn their millions into billions via changes (in tax laws etc.) sure, they’re up for that!
I disagree that we all work entirely in our own self interest.. yes, it is rare now, I agree to see a selfless, hardworking politician or other professional.. but look at the doctors who work in Gaza despite the murderous regime that actually targets them! and MSF and UNWRA and many others, eg journalists etc who work tirelessly and selflessly for others.. Such good people do exist; many protest against wickedness and get heavily punished for doing so.. dismissed, cancelled, vilified etc. If we didn’t have some good people I think I’d give up altogether!

B Davis
B Davis
28 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Exactly right.
Though I suspect every people in every age believed they lived in a similar ‘time of great change’.
In the end, we are a simple people who conceive of life in simple ways. When we think of causality, we think billiard balls on a flat table and a player and a cue stick, striking. Causality is easy to see. The white cue ball, hits the red ball, which rolls across the table into the pocket. The cue ball caused the red ball to roll that direction and at that speed. The cue ball had that force and direction because it was applied by the player’s stroke. So even though the cue ball caused the red ball to roll into the pocket, a more in-depth historical analysis would tell us it’s the player who caused the whole.
Now a revisionist historian might go further and determine that the Player’s skill at billiards was itself caused by a wastrel of a father who spent his time in pool halls….so the ‘actual / deep history’ cause was alcoholism and the proximity of the pool hall.
Of course a PhD candidate might scrounge a little deeper still, in even more obscure sources and discover that the Father’s alcoholism was actually triggered during a long sea voyage while being enlisted in the British Navy and being given a daily rum ration. Not only did the young man consume his own, his buddy was not a drinker and gave him his, also. So the REAL reason for the red ball dropping into the pocket was the sailing orders given to the British Navy.
And on and on and on.
Causality is simply a relatively arbitrary time-bound relationship between chosen variables. And that’s for something simple and obvious like billiards and the actions of cue balls. Change the situation to human beings…and the consequence of one human behavior, a subsequent human behavior which explodes into 27 different arenas, and causality gets closer and closer to blind guess.
“Conspiracy theory, like causality, works fantastically well as an explanatory model but only if you use it backwards. The fact that we cannot predict much about tomorrow strongly indicates that most of the explanations we develop about how something happened yesterday have (like history in general) a high bullshit content.”
― Peter J. Carroll, Psybermagick: Advanced Ideas in Chaos Magic

T Bone
T Bone
28 days ago

Thank you for writing this piece.  There is no greater source of “misinformation” than pseudo-history.  I know there are gentleman scholars out there using intricate methods to extrapolate complex projections out of archeological records. Their work is valuable for scientific discovery…but it will never be precise unless Doc Brown gets his time travel patent.

Most people trying to revise perceptions of the past are doing it for present political purposes.  There’s a total lack of humility.  I love reading about theories but at the end of the day Theory is not fact.  Nobody will ever be able to ascertain the past.  Any “models” are going to be overwhelmed with continually expanding margins of error for every presumption.  The further you go back, the more you are hypothesizing with qurstionable evidence. At some point that Margin of Error becomes so immense that you’re just doing Science Fiction.  

There’s something obvious to the argument that the more stuff you put in the air or water the more likely it us to produce a chemical change.  But the idea that Earth Doctors are going to diagnose it and prescribe the correct antidote is a fools errand.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
28 days ago

Something like making a pharmaceutical is only effective if you carefully control the conditions. Any change, such as the temperature, timescale, order of adding reactants, presence of impurities or even the scale, may change the outcome, sometimes drastically. History is like that, but unlike making a chemical, it can never be precisely studied in the same way – you can’t perform a series of experiments to understand what each change does. Plus, unlike molecules, every single person is slightly different. So whilst you might be able to identify certain trends, eg people tend to revolt if they are hungry, you can never predict the precise course if events.

R E P
R E P
28 days ago

Political science isn’t a science either. The arts suffer from science envy. Even if models seem plausible how do you weight the factors involved? Marxists, still in love with the idea of the ‘right side of history,’ will seek the lustre of science to bolster their narrative,

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
28 days ago
Reply to  R E P

Science envy indeed. Students of The Arts often display a sense of superiority but just as often seem to crave the authority of science. Or, as they like to call it, The Science.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
28 days ago
Reply to  nadnadnerb

Those students of the arts who may exhibit envy of science simply don’t understand art.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago
Reply to  nadnadnerb

Science is a tool not an authority. Facts are authoritative be they derived from science or otherwise..

Matt M
Matt M
28 days ago
Reply to  R E P

Even most science isn’t real science. Repeatable results testing a falsifiable hypothesis (that can usually be test against a control group) is science. The rest is little more serious than palm reading.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
27 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Indeed. I’ll believe anything that’s demonstrated by repeatable, randomised, controlled and transparent double-blind tests. The rest is opinion.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
25 days ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

That leaves a huge amount of science in the ‘opinion’ tray, not least evolutionary theory and a huge amount of cosmology!

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
28 days ago
Reply to  R E P

The usual approach is to use estimates in several past cases and correct from the known outcomes until accuracy is achieved.. it’s not rocket science!
As an aside, a friend who IS a rocket scientist told me rocket science isn’t all that complex!

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
28 days ago
Reply to  R E P

I don’t think any of the fields that tack the word “science” on their ends are sciences. It would be redundant if they were. Most of them are oxymoronic.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
28 days ago

This school of history uses quantitative information (of dubious quality), plus some statistical methods and simple modelling. That does not mean that their endeavours qualify as a science. It is not possible to conduct controlled experiments. OK, astronomy is observational, rather than experimental, but it is grounded in physics and interpretation of observation develops with advances in physics. There is nothing comparable in the pseudo-science described in this article.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
28 days ago

One could also cite the rather topical ‘science’ of Epidemiology. Experiments aren’t meant to be part of that particularly discipline… but we may have been subjected to the first on a major scale.

Matt Woodsmith
Matt Woodsmith
28 days ago

Well of course it’s nonsense. Spoiler alert, but even in Asimov’s Foundation books, Psychohistory DIDN’T WORK.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
28 days ago

A learned and insight laden article. However I find it surprising that there is no reference to Leopold Von Ranke.
After all, if historians had stuck to his path and quested for ” facts as they are”, instead of taking Marxian approaches laden with dialectic and post- modernist stances based on Marx, history wouldn’t have degenerated into its current avatar of polemics and diatribes masquerading as realities. Often Marxists make the crucial mistake of overdoing the ” base” and “superstructure” matrix; where socio- cultural and religious trends are interpreted in a very narrow manner.
One important aspect touched upon is the role of chance and co- incidence.
Personally, as a historian, I tend to veer towards ” what if”, to understand that nothing is inevitable. The ” roads not taken” need to be well analysed to arrive at a historical conclusion.

michael harris
michael harris
28 days ago

I suggest ‘Foundation’ could be applied to the present day Trantor. In such a reading is Donald Trump The Mule?

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
28 days ago

Yes, such grand narratives on the deterministic ecology belong to the Marxist tradition. It’s right then that the Net Zero ideology should take historical materialism as its bedrock and so work towards a healthy economy future for the megacoal corporatism of the People’s Republic of China.

Adam M
Adam M
28 days ago

Excellent article! I think if one does not subscribe to a highly rational and deterministic view of the world, then the implication is that there’s some central element of realty that is fundamentally unpredictable and has a will of its own. Separate from that of humanity.
I agree that past and future simply cannot be understood deductively. Not only due to a limited supply of available information but because. As this article articulates. Any interpretation of history will be seen only through the lens of the time in which it is produced. Projecting our current hopes and fears backward, as well as forward.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
28 days ago

Whoa, Nellie! Cue Edward Lorenz on “the butterfly effect” from “The Predictability of Flow which Possesses Many Scales of Motion,” Tellus 21 (1969), pp. 298-307.
Lorenz actually characterizes it as more of a “Seagull effect,” …, we may not have the luxury of knowing everything about the state of a complex system at any given time, and it may be case that we can never acquire information that is fine enough to enable ourselves to fully ascertain a given state. We may yet miss arbitrarily small aspects of the system’s trajectory – the flapping of a seagull’s wings, say –that could yet inform our prediction of that same trajectory. There may be a finite limit to what we can know about a system. Conclusion: Forecasting may make for good copy, but forecasts that extend out farther than a short term are rubbish.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
28 days ago

Further, the act of viewing atomic particles is hypothesised to actually change the nature and/or position of those particles. Similarly, any study that seeks to ascertain historical truth could be said to actively change the nature of the information available.

Danny Kaye
Danny Kaye
28 days ago

In listing the contributions of the hard sciences to our understanding of past history, the author is remiss in not mentioning the huge contribution of human genome comparisons, and more particularly ancient DNA analysis. This is an actual revolution, started just a few years ago, but which is certain to rewrite the whole history of human migrations throughout the ages, including prehistory. See e.g.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/20/books/review/david-reich-who-we-are-how-we-got-here.html

jane baker
jane baker
28 days ago
Reply to  Danny Kaye

I’ve heard that the Russian DNA studies have produced stunning results and show a picture of the ancient world that the USA political administration DO NOT LIKE AT ALL,so they have banned their “scientists” quoting from it,using it or even getting access to it (officially) I expect they do though.
Seems the Russki findings don’t fit THE NARRATIVE.

Adam Huntley
Adam Huntley
28 days ago

Interesting but the one glaring omission is the application of Chaos Theory. It is all very well making predictions from existing knowledge, but it only takes a butterfly’s wings to change the course of events in literally unpredictable ways. Just ask anyone who tries seriously predicting the weather in two week’s time.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
28 days ago

Since the Enlightenment, we are seeking for the scientific solution to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
In physics, by the late 19th century, all leading luminaries were convinced that the Grand Unified Theory was within reach. There were only two niggling problems. Max Planck in 1894 focused on one of them, black body radiation, and his solution – quantum physics – revolutionised physics and continues to dominate.
Quantum theory is infuriatingly “unscientific” in that it includes the precept that if we know one fact, we are by definition excluded from knowing another, and embraces chaos. Not every scientist came to terms with quantum physics. Einstein famously said “God does not throw dice.” Quantum theory suggests He does.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
28 days ago

“To reduce “history” to the mathematical modelling of social crisis would be impoverishing in the extreme.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Academics often strive to simplify their subjects; seemingly because a) they’re intellectually lazy, and b) they’re the kind of people who just can’t deal with uncertainty, much less chaos. While I sympathize with such people they should not be telling me what to think, if only because they’re wasting their time and effort.
This flattening-out of our points of view, which I object to on aesthetic as well as intellectual grounds, is only serving to hasten the moment when AI makes academics redundant. Unfortunately, the few really creative minds will be swept down that drain with all the rest.
And then there will be no new knowledge; just an endless feed-back loop of AI generated received-knowledge.

John Riordan
John Riordan
26 days ago

The danger of AI doesn’t complete in the manner you imply. The way large language models work means that the output they generate is wholly dependent upon statistical consenses that can be observed through analysis of vast datasets. This means that it cannot innovate or discern truth from fiction.

The danger is AI in the hands of humans. AI cannot take over the world, but humans using AI as a weapon might be able to, and are increasingly likely to try.

AC Harper
AC Harper
28 days ago

I’m rather fond of the idea of Cliodynamics and I wholeheartedly accept the Theory of Evolution. Political and Economical theories, not so much.
The better theories present a simple way of of grasping current and previous interactions and so have value – but there are many smaller details that do not fit so tidily into the general theory. The theories are not wrong so much as too coarse grained.
Arguably it is not the scientists who are arrogant as such but the activists and journalists that oversimplify matters to grab public attention. As an exercise I invite you search out any scientific paper which is breathlessly reported in the press and see what the paper actually said. Often the headlines draw an inference which is contradicted by the paper.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
28 days ago

History can only be considered a “science” if one its willing to equivocate the term. True science depends upon the scientific method and verification of theory through experimentation. The past is not available for experimentation. Furthermore, valid science should strive to be as free as possible from the influences of the fluid precepts of religion, culture, and fashion. Historical interpretation is a slave to all three and thus can never be relied upon to produce transcendent truths. Finally, while science frequently fails to completely tease out the truth of a natural phenomenon, over time with sustained inquiry and examination it tends to narrow down its errors toward greater accuracy. History, on the other hand, is subject to the degradation of sources over time, which inherently introduces more conjecture going forward and more opportunity to bend the narrative to suit the agenda of the historian.

John Riordan
John Riordan
28 days ago

I’m pretty surprised that anyone since the discovery of chaos theory might seriously believe that science might deliver a predictive model of history.

The Marxist “laws of history” schtick was the first thing I learned about Marxism that emphasised to me that Marxism isn’t just wrong but absurd, and that it’s proponents are likely to be dangerous fools, not merely well-meaning but mistaken.

That said, the increasing relevance of science to historical analysis does not fall into that category: it’s an intriguing prospect that our ever-increasing ability to determine physical certainties through analysis might be able to deliver new insights not available to the standard approaches of academic history.

Humanity is about 100,000 years old, yet only a small fraction of the humans that have ever existed lived in societies that left written records. There are entire tribes, languages, cultures and cities that are lost almost without trace, and for a curious mind that is a kind of tragedy. Anything we can do to improve on this situation ought to be very welcome indeed.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
28 days ago

There certainly patterns in history, and scientific approaches can help in finding some of them out, but the scientific tendency towards reductionist logic gets in the way. Complex systems, like human society or the Earth’s climate at any given time are often sensitive to small changes in variables, and there are hundreds or thousands of variables, more than any person or even a computer can handle at once. Drawing reductionist conclusions as we do with physics has a tendency to lead to large errors as a result of focusing on only a few variables. Some things lend themselves naturally to reductionist logic. Physics can be reduced down to the mathematical laws we’re familiar with. Chemistry can be reduced to the interactions of various substances down to the interactions of the basic building blocks of atoms and molecules. As the topic grows in depth and complexity however, the less reductionist logic applies. Take biology. There are creatures we once thought to be closely related due to their appearance and characteristics that are not related genetically in any way, because genetics is a great deal more complex than simple chemistry or physics, and the process of evolution can be unpredictable. Genetics has basically necessitated basically rewriting the entire classification of animals and plants into genetically related groups and lines of common ancestral descent.
In my opinion, history is more like music, a song we’re only part of the way through. We can guess from the way the music has unfolded up to this point what the next stanza will look like and have some marginally better rate of prediction than random chance, but we don’t know how long the song is, what it’s about, where it ends, or how it might change drastically in the future.

B Davis
B Davis
28 days ago

It seems obvious…but there is a vast and chasmic difference between History and explanations of history. There is, even more, a vast and chasmic difference between those dubious explanations of history…and ‘forecasts’ of history yet to be.
The truth is, we cannot explain even our own motivations for what we did yesterday; how impossible must it be to explicate & diagram & extrapolate the motivations of the Other…in a different place & time?!
Complicate all that by the fact that the actions and decisions we’re seeking to untangled were tangled, in the long ago & far away, by those who are themselves now dead, who inhabited a world now gone, in a time now vanished.
“Impersonal Forces”, we say, circumscribe the scope of human will. We give these ‘impersonalities’ names and nifty definitions. We call them Imperialism…Colonialism…The Patriarchy…. Sexism…. Materialism …Capitalism… Elitism… Fascism… Socialism… Utopianism… Younameitism. But what are they, really? Beyond the sticky-label slapped on various collections of moderately similar human behaviors, they ‘re nothing…doing nothing….changing nothing…making nothing.
They have no independent life. nor will, nor purpose. We do. And sometimes we do something that allows someone to point and exclaim: Capitalism (‘It’s the Impersonal Force at Play!’) But Capitalism didn’t do a damn thing; we did. And we did whatever it was we did because we wanted whatever it was we wanted….or feared whatever it was we feared…or maybe just because it was a ‘falling-off-a-log’ kind of thing to do.
So when the author tells us, “European imperialism and white supremacy (are said to be) responsible for the ills of the modern world (not without reason, of course)” … what he’s really saying is naught. Neither European Imperialism nor White Supremacy is a thing. Neither possesses volition or force. Neither is responsible for anything. As for why the Dutch East India Company pushed forth into South Asia in 1602…those decisions had nothing to do with ‘European Imperialism’ and everything to do with the profit gained from the Malukan spice trade. And why did those Dutch ships’ captains desire profit? Because it made their lives better, or so they hoped. And why did the Maluccans facilitate these trades? For the very same reason.
But even these seeming Big Decisions are not typically Big Decisions made in a Big Way. Rather they are sums of little tiny decisions made incrementally over days, weeks, months and years, because we ourselves are Incrementalists. We make little, tiny, barely-noticeable decisions (when, indeed, we make a decision) and we let time, and the context of things, sweep us on into subsequent consequence and other little, tiny decisions.
Marx tells us, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” Did he follow that with a giant ‘Duh’? Of course we do not build our own life only according to whim and desire. No one has Aladdin’s Lamp, nor is there a Djinn to grant us ‘what we please’. Instead all of us, each one of us, lives within a multi-dimensional world context…a construct created by the billions who have gone before us….who have created a billion constraints, and guides, and enablers (culture, place, and time-specific) which keep us, most typically, between the world’s fenceposts…today.
So where does all that leave us with regard to ‘Scientific History’? Exactly nowhere. Certainly there are factors, qualities, exogenous things (like weather) that do indeed play a historical role…sometimes of significance… and yes, sometimes re-examining History in light of those things can be interesting? illuminating? maybe even insightful? But overall, in the long run, they are but footnotes….and unpredictive footnotes at that. Scientific History is history with a pinch of so-called ‘science’ added. Nothing else…and capable of nothing more.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
27 days ago

Trust no one, believe nothing you haven’t had experience or personal knowledge of.
People’s opinions are just that and signify nothing else.
Everything is a theory and some theories are more stable and long term than others.
Even things like gravity. We believe it will last to the end of time, because it seems to behave in exactly the same way no matter how many times it is tested and observed.
But if conditions changed?
You can’t say something will never happen; you can only say it hasn’t happened so far.
The more local real time experiences you have, the better able you are to negotiate whatever reality is.
History is a jigsaw impossible to put together correctly, let alone predict the future from.

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
26 days ago

One of the most despised (currently) ways of looking at history is the so-called Great Man Theory, where some human with a perfect storm of abilities and opportunities lands in a situation perfectly suited to his preparation. Without Bismarck, Lincoln, Mohammed, Jesus, how different would the world be?
The last paragraph of the article almost casually drops in that powerful, unpredictable bombshell factor. But in the current climate I doubt any professor of “cliodynamics” would consider it seriously, probably because most of those “Great Men” lie within the European story.

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
26 days ago

Historical science has a lot in common with weather science. Very useful in predicting tomorrow; less so for the day after. Perfectly useless for predicting 10 years from now.