History Is Not Biology, Primary Sources Are Not Lab Experiments

I usually make a point of not writing a “someone is wrong on the internet” article unless I’ve been in or at least observed two different online conversations in which someone asserted something dumb, that way I can be reasonably confident that this is a thing that some subsection of the internet believes in rather than just a specific guy who is crazy or suffering from some very specific misunderstanding. In this case, it was actually one conversation in which three different people all made the same mistake, so this may be even less generally applicable than these usually are, but Hell, at least I’m posting more or less on schedule again.

Today’s subject is the different between history and sciences like physics and biology and so forth, and why applying the standards for one to the other is dumb. History is the study of things that are over. Wars that have already been fought, technological revolutions that have already altered society, people who are already dead, that sort of thing. History is usually thought to begin (and current events end) somewhere between 10-25 years ago which means sometimes it is possible to go out and get brand new primary sources by going and talking to a guy who was there, but generally speaking the events have passed mostly or completely from living memory, and in any case the memories of an event that happened decades ago are significantly less reliable than the memories of an event recorded a week after the event occurred.

Huge swaths of history are cobbled together from a handful of eyewitness accounts supplemented by government-sponsored historical narratives that might plausibly include entire campaigns that were fabricated, especially if they were written long after the events allegedly took place. The incidence of literacy throughout most of history was very low and is inversely correlated to how durable the means of recording a personal diary are – when people used near-impervious clay tablets to write things down, almost nobody could write, and when lots of people knew how to write, everyone was using flimsy paper notebooks that fall apart after just half a century. If your entire record of a battle is the propaganda of state media on one or both sides, eyewitness reports of a few dozen people who were there, some mass graves, and a bunch of spent shells, then odds are excellent that this will always be your entire record of the battle.

In biology, if you have anecdotal evidence that a horse and a donkey can produce fertile offspring, you can go double check if that’s true, and if so, how often, because horses and donkeys are still a thing. Therefore, if you have anecdotal evidence that horses and donkeys can produce fertile offspring, that’s considered insufficient in the specific field of biology not because anecdotal evidence is worthless, but because it’s inferior to other, stronger kinds of evidence that we can go out and gather. It’s not that using anecdotal evidence is some original sin that automatically makes an argument wrong, it’s that modern science has easy access to more reliable methods, so there’s generally no reason but laziness not to employ those methods rather than calling anecdotal evidence good enough and moving on.

In history, if you have anecdotal evidence that women warriors fought alongside their men in iron age Balkan tribes, that’s all she wrote (for the curious: no, this was not the actual subject of the argument that inspired this post). If you dismiss the reports as “anecdotal,” you have not exposed your opponent as a propagandist using flimsy evidence to uphold their political narrative, you have exposed yourself as failing to understand how history works. If we have a couple of anecdotes saying that something happened one way and not any compelling evidence to say that it happened another, then that first way is our best guess as to how things were and we have no idea when we’ll get any better evidence. We collect a lot of data these days, and we store a lot of it on the internet, so when dealing with science or current events it is often the case that good stats are available with just 30 minutes of research. In history, we have whatever stats the ancients left for us. That gives us a lot on crop harvests and basically nothing on murder rates, military effectiveness, and self-reported rate of happiness in [insert extinct civilization here].

On a related note, this is why fields like physics and chemistry tend to see a lot of refining, where what we believed before was basically correct but new experiments have revealed how it’s wrong in some edge cases, or there’s more nuance and detail than we had previously anticipated, or whatever. Turns out “atoms” aren’t actually atomic at all, they’re made out of neutrons and protons and so on, but atoms are still real. On the other hand, history is more prone to things like “that thing we thought was true has turned out to be a complete fabrication by the Ancient Egyptian government which we believed because we didn’t have anything else to go off of until a recent archaeological dig turned up some Hittite records.” Like, it’s true that history’s lower standards of evidence leave the field more prone to having the current consensus on a particular time period completely overturned by new evidence, but that’s true of all history and scoffing at historians for relying on anecdotal evidence isn’t being skeptical or insightful, it’s being an idiot contrarian.

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