Is history a science?

Is history a science? If yes, what makes it scientific? These kind of fundamental questions are raised by John Lewis Gaddis in his The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. Gaddis is best know for his work on the Cold War era. The Landscape of History is a different type of book; it is methodological in its orientation. As such, it continues the debate in history initiated two decades ago by Richard J. Evans in In Defense of History. On the one hand, historians debate how different is history from other social science disciplines. On the other hand, many of them want to push back against postmodernism and its claims that historical – and even truly scientific – findings are ultimately subjective.

Gaddis offers many interesting points that appear obvious only after one reads his book. For instance, his claim that past is the only database we have (8-9) is both simple and profound. Similarly, his contention that detachment from the past is needed if we are to judge it appropriately will certainly alienate many readers. The author, however, makes a convincing case that at least deserves to be heard. Gaddis also admits that historians do in fact manipulate the past. Time, space, and scale are altered by historians in the process of doing their research (for a critical approach to this type of research see here). These manipulations can’t be completely arbitrary, of course, but some freedom of plasticity has to be allowed. To illustrate this point, Gaddis uses a brilliant analogy of a map. For maps are only useful, if they are not ideal representations of the terrain that they seek to project.

In the discipline of political science, there is much concern these days with mechanisms. To uncover them, political scientists turn process-tracing (or within-case) analysis. Gaddis sets up a brilliant point here that connects studying the past with studying the mechanisms. Past mechanisms produce present structures. Therefore, to understand how these structures came into being, it is necessary to study the mechanisms that produced them. That’s simple enough, but for Gaddis history is more scientific than other social sciences because the natural sciences are becoming more historical. As a result, experiments are not the gold standard of scientific method since:

In the fields like astronomy, geology, paleontology, or evolutionary biology, phenomena rarely fit within laboratories, and the time required to see results can exceed the life spans of those who seek them (39-40).

Gaddis also takes to task several methodological points so often taken for granted in standard political science training. Is it possible, for instance, that some variables are truly independent? The author thinks not; and yet the pressure to produce ever more complex regression analysis comes from somewhere. That pressure has a name – prediction. He argues that few political scientists would admit that accurate forecast is their ultimate goal, but in this instance actions speak louder than words.

There is something profound about the Landscape of History. This short book is full of insight and deserves to be read (especially) by graduate students who sometimes might wonder how political science is different from and similar to other social sciences.

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