Why science is better than history

Stephen Hawking, David Starkey

We all want to understand how the world works. Or I assume we all do. I certainly do. That’s why we read non-fiction books. Books that explain the world. Books about the life of Charlemagne, about the run-up to the First World War, about relativity or evolution.

It’s one of the great joys in life, I think, reading something and thinking: OK, so that’s how that works, that’s why the world is how it is. In A-level history, we learned about the Spanish conquest of South America, as part of the study of early modern Europe. There was one fact that stayed with me: the discovery of huge silver mines, and the great imports that followed, paved the way for Spain’s economic problems in the intervening centuries. Economics didn’t exist as a discipline at the time, so no one foresaw what now seems obvious: the enormous quantities of silver caused the bottom to fall out of the silver market, and Spain’s huge reserves became worthless. And the country became the “economic backwater” (as our textbook called it) that it has remained for the last 350 years or so.

I don’t know if that’s still the consensus opinion of historians of the period, but if so, it’s wonderful: a small fact which explains a much larger one. It has huge explanatory power, enormous knowledge-bang for your time-investment buck.

As I’ve said before, you don’t actually have all that much time on the planet. A little over 4,000 weeks, and that’s if you eat your 10 a day and live to your full life expectancy. Depending on how fast you read, and how easily you get distracted by Gogglebox or faffing around on Twitter, you’re probably going to get through about 1,000 books in that time.

So, from that point of view, I’m going to make the claim: if you want to understand the world, science is better than history.

If you read a history book – say Doris Kearns Goodwin’s marvellous biography of Lincoln, A Team of Rivals – you will learn how Abraham Lincoln (and his Republican rival/colleagues, Edward Bates, Salmon P Chase and William H Seward) lived. You will learn about the Civil War, and American politics and life in the 19th century, and slavery. You’ll learn some stuff about how the modern Democratic and Republican parties came to be. You’ll learn quite a lot.

But it’s a very narrow focus. History by its nature is chaotic and complex and large, and learning about 19th-century America tells you almost nothing about, say, 16th-century Europe, let alone postclassical-period Mesoamerica or ancient Babylon. The small facts that explain large ones, like the Spanish silver collapse, are rare. Knowing about history involves painstakingly piecing together a vast patchwork of knowledge. You can’t extrapolate anything from the stuff you know; how one war went won’t tell you anything about who won another one.

By comparison, if you read and understand The Blind Watchmaker, you will understand – in broad terms – how every living thing on the planet came to be. The specifics differ – “How the elephant got his trunk” and “How the camel got his hump”, in the real-life non-Kipling version, are matters of evolutionary history – and some details of how evolution works are updated, but the basic story, of differential reproductive success in a varied population, is the same, and explains everything from yeast to mangos to killer whales.

What’s more, it has predictive power. People like to say that if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. But we can’t, really, learn from history. No two periods are the same. No lesson applies directly. The fact that appeasement was a bad idea in the 1930s does not mean that military options are a good idea now, even though everyone draws the analogy every time a foreign power does something we don’t like.

But science can tell us about the psychology of foreign-policy “hawks” and “doves” (a brilliant article by Daniel Kahneman, that, well worth a read), and, if it’s true, it will be potentially applicable to every human conflict, forever. You can make predictions using it about how people will behave. Science makes predictions, and tests itself against those predictions, and then repairs itself in the light of any errors, and improves itself so it can make better predictions. So a knowledge of science, unlike a knowledge of history, can help you predict the future, in a dim and imperfect way.

I know I’m being a little trollish. Of course history is a wonderful thing to learn; the more you know of it, the greater context you have for all human life, for everything that happens in the news. And of course someone who makes his living writing about science would say that science > history.

But I think there’s a bit of truth here. If you want to know about the world, and you only have time to read one book, you could learn about the Corn Laws, or the life of Dr Johnson. Or you could read something which tells you how every single atom in the universe behaves, or how the universe came to exist. If you’re looking, as I said, for lots of knowledge-bang for your time-investment buck, you know what to pick.

More by Tom Chivers

Predicting the future of your marriage, algorithmically
If Fifa isn’t corrupt, then it’s incredibly stupid
Everyone thinks the BBC is biased against THEM


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