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University of Basel

How precise are the sciences, Tobias Straumann?

Text: Tobias Straumann

The humanities and natural sciences differ fundamentally on the issue of how to depict the world accurately. They also deal with the problem of imprecise findings in different ways.

Prof. Dr. Tobias Straumann is Honorary Professor of Modern History and teaches at the Center for Business and Economics at the University of Basel and at the University of Zurich. His research focuses mainly on the monetary and financial history of Europe and on Swiss economic history and economic policy.
Prof. Dr. Tobias Straumann is Honorary Professor of Modern History and teaches at the Center for Business and Economics at the University of Basel and at the University of Zurich. His research focuses mainly on the monetary and financial history of Europe and on Swiss economic history and economic policy.

History students learn as early as their first semester that there is no such thing as an objective fact, as our perception of the past is always highly selective. Much of what happened has simply gone unrecorded, and how we interpret sources is always dependent on our personal preferences, which are influenced by all sorts of factors. Some of those factors we are aware of, but not others. Full disclosure of our epistemological interests remains a utopian ideal.

Yet history still insists on being regarded as a science. Students are taught how to write, analyze sources critically, and evaluate secondary literature. The underlying aim of all research is to set out as clearly as possible its line of argument and the empirical basis for that. The scholarly value of a historical study is measured in terms of how well it can be understood and tested by others.

Economic history makes an even stronger claim than general history to be a science, on the grounds that its empirical basis consists not only of qualitative sources, but also of serial data, which are often subjected to statistical analysis. Like economics, quantitative economic history (cliometrics) seeks to identify and assess the impact of particular factors on a clearly defined phenomenon.

How are students to interpret these contradictory signals? Are the humanities and social sciences really scientific in their approach, or are they merely engaged in a doomed attempt to describe particular patterns of human thought and action? From a strictly epistemological point of view, the latter is undoubtedly the case. The notion that people’s behavior is governed by universal rules, which it is our job to discover, is implausible. The natural sciences, by contrast, are wholly capable of identifying such laws. Thus, when knowledge is passed on to them, students of history or economics should always be mindful of how imprecise that imparted knowledge is.

From an ethical point of view, however, the humanities and social sciences fully deserve the label scientific”, as they seek to organize their research as systematically as possible and to make their findings as transparent as possible. Although economists and historians may not be in possession of universal truths after completing their studies, they are capable of distinguishing sound research from charlatanism. In today’s world, the significance of this should not be underestimated.

Yet, if students are to develop a strong methodological awareness, this ideal must be adhered to consistently. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. In economics, the approach can be to “interrogate” data until a “confession is made”. Sometimes data are fed into a model, even though they are of extremely dubious quality. In history, occasionally authors whose opinions are considered unpalatable on political grounds are just not cited. In my view, therefore, the scholarly value of research in the social sciences and the humanities ultimately comes down to the character of those practicing the disciplines.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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