Skip to main content

History comes of age

History is not unlike science, an observation made by Richard Carrier, the author of Proving History - and when you think about it, this idea makes a lot of sense. They both involve weighing up evidence, testing hypotheses and drawing up conclusions. In fact arguably cosmology is, in effect history rather than science, as it involves looking into the past and it is rarely possible to subject it to experiment or repeat it to see what happens.

That being the case, to do history properly, historians really ought to be using some of the tools available to scientists, but that they tend to ignore, in part because history has been around longer, but primarily, I suspect, because most historians have neither the training nor the inclination to dip their toes into mathematics. But the message of Proving History, written by a historian, is 'Come on in, guys, the water is lovely!' Carrier doesn't mention it, but there is a precedent here. Until recently biologists were basically natural historians. They merely observed and classified - they were doing Rutherford's 'stamp collecting' - they too avoided mathematics with fear and loathing. Now, though, some branches of biology make heavy use of maths, and have been transformed as a result. Biologists have learned to love numbers and a new breed of historians (it's probably too late for the old brigade) can and must too.

The tools Richard Carrier employs are logic and Bayes' Theorem. The logic is simple enough (though it is surprising how many examples Carrier gives where historians have drawn illogical conclusions). Bayes' Theorem is a little harder to get your head around. This statistical method is something I cover at some length in Dice World, because it is arguably one of the most powerful tools we have for predicting the future. What I didn't really full absorb is that it is also a great way of weighing up historical evidence and hypotheses. (It's odd, now I think of it, that I didn't do this, as the main example I give to demonstrate Bayes is deducing whether or not my dog is a golden retriever, which is, in effect, history, rather than future gazing.)

What Bayes' Theorem does is allow you to work out the probability of something being true with limited information, and modified by secondary evidence. As mathematics goes, it is actually very simple - a doddle compared with calculus, for instance - but for some reason, the way it is traditionally described makes it really hard to grasp, so one essential in selling the value of Bayes to historians is making your description simple. Unfortunately this is where Carrier falls down. If anything he makes Bayes' theorem sound more complicated than it is.

There are a couple of other problems with the book. I'm not quite sure what the target audience is, but the book is far to dry and dull to be anything but an academic text. This is a real shame, as the message is one that everyone should be interested in - here is a tool that could transform the way we assess our historical data, that could transform history. He perhaps should have had a co-author to make the text more approachable. It's not that the content is too complex, just that the way it is put across is often difficult to absorb.

The other problem is that Carrier is setting up this method primarily to be ready for his second book, in which he will dispute the historical reality of Jesus. This being the case, most of the examples in the book are from the Bible. I think this is a mistake, because this approach is so powerful it ought to have been set out in general historical terms in book 1 before he got onto his 'historicity of Jesus' theme in book 2. I think the subject matter will put some people off, who would otherwise benefit greatly from the underlying theme.

So if you are interested in the nature of history and how it can be improved, it is worth wading through the rhetoric to get to the juicy bits. It's a shame there aren't more examples, as the writing comes to life when dealing with specifics - it is only when it is being generic, which is much of the book, that it is hard going. If you are interested in Christian history, well and good - but if you aren't, again I would urge you not to be put off because the underlying approach applies to all of history and is far too good to waste. You can see the book at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope