The Historian, the Economist and the Scientist

Back from Amsterdam where I attended the Observation in economics and natural sciences, historically considered‘s conference ( In the conference, several discussions have focused on whether there was some difference between observations in natural and social sciences (at least  for the sake of history).

bad-economyWhile opening the Saturday issue of Le Monde, I found an article (reproduced from the NYT) titled: “Physicist Tried to Outwit Wall Street. They Failed”, that put (at least for me) these discussions in an interesting perspective. One of the quotations from the main character, the former physicist turned professor of finance, Emanuel Derman, is interesting. He wrote in his biography: “In physics there may be one day a Theory of Everything; in finance and the social sciences, you’re lucky if there is a usable theory of anything.” I take this quote as representative of what many scientists , who believe that there is a lot of differences between natural and social science, think. The question is: does it matter to us, historians. I do not think so. In the face of history, all sciences are equal!

10 thoughts on “The Historian, the Economist and the Scientist

  1. Perhaps there is a difference in what is being observed?

    Physical sciences try to observe, or model quantities or entities which can be wholly explained by some model and should not change over time, whereas social scientists study a realm which by its very nature is changeable over time, thus not conducive to a single all pervasive explanation for all time. (Moreover I guess only the latter would be subject to post modern scholarship to any large degree as a result of this.)

  2. Okay, Benjamin, I understand your point of view, but I think it is not what Loic meant in this message when he says that “in the face of History, all sciences are equal”. Loic simply means that the historian, at least the postmodern one, has no interest in saying whether the various theories he is talking about are true or false in the epistemological sense of the term. He thinks that the tools of observation and the theories they are supposed to test are mutually constructed within a historical context (in that sense, history clearly borrows its methodology from SSK). For that reason, what the physicist has to say about the economist should have absolutely no influence on the method of the historian.
    And to be honest, I have to confess I vehemently disagree with your assertion that only social science can be the subject to postmodern scholarship, because postmodern history (and sociology) of science simply thinks that the distinction between hard and soft science, between the “natural sciences” and the humanities, is an irrelevant issue for its purposes. And this for a good reason : postmodern history of science has no interest in questioning the very nature of scientific inquiry, but only in telling how science (whatever it is) operates. You just have to read Latour’s Pasteurization of France to understand that even one of the most undeniable scientific discoveries in recent history cannot escape the examination of SSK. It is not denying that there is some truth, but just denying that the truth is “out there”. It is just that when you study the history of Einstein or Pasteur in its context, you don’t know how the future is going to be, who the winners and the losers will be, you don’t know if the model is going to work, then you don’t have to worry about what you call “the very nature of realm”. Am I too relativist for you ?

  3. I agree completely with Yann. I have two little add-ons. First, the idea that physical sciences have a fixed object is true only for classical physics, not for quantic physics for example to say nothing of other natural sciences such as biology. Thus I am not even sure that your distinction holds on this ground as well. Second, the notion of truth is problematic for me. I would prefer using performance. You can construct some impressive performances such as sending a man on the moon on certain areas of scientific knowledge, whereas you have much more difficulty with other areas or othere performances (for example, the performance of developing the economies of whole regions of the world for the social sciences or that of developing non nuclear fusion to feed our energy thirst).

  4. And even for maths, which is often thought as the last bastion of “truth” in an absolute and a-historical way, there is now a developing literature on “ethno-mathematics”, or maths as situated knowledge. And I suppose that Newtonian studies have also brought loads of post-modern scholarship.

  5. Tiago, Performance and Goffman re-appears once more, for better or worse I am not sure 😉

    Yann, no you are not too relativist for me, and in response, I take both yours and Loïc’s point that the Historian’s perspective on any given science should not change depending on what that science is being investigated, regardless of the historians Post Modern leanings I suspect.

    What I was trying to suggest was that the observer (the historian) might not be different, but the object (the science/scientist) being observed may have very different characteristics, in particular when it comes to what they consider to be their field of study.

    That consideration is admittedly part of the context, but I think it is important, as post modernism and relativism is a young phenomenon in all the sciences, and despite some inroads in the physical sciences, even quantum mechanics or biology won’t accept a conclusion that the outcome may be relative in some form. That is not to say they have discovered some invariant truth, but ultimately that is what they seek, and I think that ambition should be considered.

    Conversely consider the economists inventing the national income measure in use today, back in the 1940’s. They were very aware that while they were constructing a data result, and defining growth, the work had to be “based upon criteria that may differ from country to country, group to group and time to time… [changing as] new components emerge, and experience and perspective widens” (Kuznets 1941), while Richard Stone and James Meade (1941), in the UK, set out to provide “the data most useful to the economist”.

    Maybe its a moot point, but I think there is a distinction in the ambitions of the social scientists and the ‘hard’ scientists, but with enough post modernism (or Karl Popper), I guess we can deal with that.

  6. How the scientist considers his object of study, whether in natural or social sciences, is part of our object of study as historian and thus shouldn’t influence us. But do the historian handle every science with the same methodology of history/writing/investigating? Can we say “to different objects, different methods?” Or is “what physicists do” the same object as “what economists do”?

    My immediate reaction to Loic’s question was: I wouldn’t treat the reflexivity issue in the same way if we study physicists or economists (although I’ll have to deal with it in both cases). Some historians do (Latour and Bath schoool arguments). Were I to study a physicist (researching physics) and an economist, sometimes I wouldn’t ask the same questions, I wouldn’t look at the same dilemmas in their life, and sometimes, on the contrary, I would closely investigate how each react to the same historical turbulences and scientific challenges of their times. Of course the historian faces the “observation” issue when studying the social as well as the natural sciences, but it may translate in different questions, different approaches.

    Not being concerned with the “truth” of what scientists say of their science does not mean that writing the history of physics is exactly the same as writing the history of economics.

  7. OK Beatrice, but what do you mean by “not exactly the same”? Let me make my point clearer (and I think it also addresses Benjamin’s point).
    Because the object is different, the historian will use different tools addressing different sciences, be it social or natural, but it does not mean that the nature of his inquiry will be any different.
    And one precision, historians are concerned with the truth issue, but in a different way as scientists are. For the historian what is interesting is the fact that some community of scientists or individual scientists believe (or not) that what they do is/aimed at truth: this in turn orientates some of their practices, discourses and so on. Hence, as historian I am interested by the truth issue as a representation, not as an ontology (which is the job of the methodologist).

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