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Gaddis: historians operate more like natural scientists than do social scientists

December 20, 2020


John Lewis Gaddis. The Landscape of History. Oxford University Press, 2002.


While on sabbatical at Oxford, the eminent Cold War historian from Yale, John Gaddis, decided to give lectures on the methods of historical research. The resulting book is somewhat philosophical in nature. One of the key points he makes is that historians are more like natural scientists than social scientists, in that natural scientists and historians share the same conviction that there is no such thing as a big independent variable that must be found to account for the phenomena, but rather an ecology of variables that jointly feed into a complex system that may even be chaotic. As part of this argument he mounts several attacks on reductionist-oriented social scientists. The extract below is one such volley.


Students in the social sciences are often told to proceed “as if” these anomalies had not happened. Saving the theory is what’s important: it doesn’t matter if doing so “smooths out,” or even flattens, the facts. What this means, though, is that the social sciences are operating — by no means in all instances, but in many — at roughly the level of freshman physics experiments [with idealized, artificial set-ups]. That’s why the forecasts they make only occasionally correspond with the reality we subsequently encounter.

…. Hence, when social scientists are right, they too often confirm the obvious. When they don’t confirm the obvious, they’re too often wrong.


From the perspective of a distant scientist there might not seem to be a whole lot of light between an historian and a social scientist. However, as the extract above suggests, there can be deep divisions between the two once you get closer. The attack on social scientists fits into Gaddis’s larger picture that historians are much more like natural scientists (especially cosmologists, paleontologists, etc.) than social scientists. 

More broadly speaking, the book is interesting reading in that he explains the methodologies of natural science in order to make a more positive likeness argument that historians are more similar to natural scientists. I do not agree with all the characterizations, but it is quite clever and fascinating nevertheless.

Finally, another relevant point Gaddis makes in the book is that reflection on the methods in one’s field (what are your deeper goals and how do you propose get there) is a necessary exercise that all should do. I believe this to be true among physicists as well. There needs to be more reflection on goals and especially methods within physics — not just on short-term goals and the tactical methods to get there, which is rather easy, but also on the long-term grand goals and the strategic methods needed to get there, which is very hard yet critical to long-term success. This is what I tried to do in my recent book Discovery Beyond the Standard Model of Elementary Particle Physics, but there is much more to do and say in this realm.

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