One of my teacher’s asked me a question: “What similarities and differences are there between historical and scientific explanations?” This led me to write about my junior year in school, and what I have found to be true.
As I go through a school day, I begin to connect the dots within several of my classes. In physics I may attend a lesson about velocity versus time graphs and recall similar content being taught to me that morning in my calculus class when my teacher teaches her class about integrals and derivatives. I may connect a history lesson about the extermination of the Native Americans with English class examining poetry by Mary Oliver. I could connect the philosophy class on “The Matrix” with the TOK presentation on reality. While there is clear overlap in many of my classes, two classes I rarely merge is my science class and my history class. I have never been in a lesson about the Treaty of Versaille and thought “this is an awful lot like circuit mechanics!” While the connections rarely come to mind at first thought, the more we delve into our imagination, we can see the connections between these two studies. I chose this topic because I am trying to draw those lines between these previously separated areas of knowledge and I will do so in this essay. How is my history class related to my science class? In what ways are Newton’s Laws similar or different than the stories written by historians? These are some questions that can be answered when answering this prescribed title. In this prescribed title, there is only one word that should be defined. Because similarities and differences have clear definitions and historical and scientific clearly refer to two Theory of Knowledge areas of knowing, the only word that should be defined as explanations. For the purpose of this essay, explanations will be defined as the way an event or theory is proven based on support, evidence, and fact. While history and science differ in how they tell of the facts, they are quite similar in the way they allow the facts to be overturned.
A main difference between the way history and science explain events is seen in the way that the facts or the reality presents itself in these two subjects. In history, explanations are based on someone’s perspective and no historian has ever been able to tell the full story of an event without bias. While a fact that a historian uses to explain an event may be accurate, the way it is said as well as what is not said can be leading a reader astray. For example one textbook writes: ‘“Thomas Jefferson once referred to the establishment clause as a ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ That phrase is not used in the Constitution, however.’” While the statement is factually correct….it [gives] students the inaccurate impression that Jefferson’s view was personal and lacked significant connection to the First Amendment. Not only can problems occur when part of the story is left it, but errors in historical explanations can be seen when things are oversimplified. Another textbook writes “When Europeans arrived, they brought Christianity with them and spread it among the indigenous people.” Once again, this is factually accurate, yet still careless and misleading as it purposely leaves out the fact that this spread of Christianity came with genocide and the language changes came with the forced expulsion of any non-western language. While a careful reader can read this passage and be angered at the misguided nature of the textbook, they must also admit that it is impossible to explain history historically without an agenda. If you are writing a book that has anything beyond facts and figures – any words used to describe an event – it is impossible to provide an unbiased explanation. Martin Luther King was one of the greatest men in U.S. history but he also was “obsessed with white prostitutes”. While history can oftentimes be used to learn more about the past and teach newer generations, it can also be used to increase nationalism. For example, historians leave out the darker sides to important figures to increase nationalism and make people feel that their heroes lack faults. Biases play a role in the way that people are portrayed in order to increase this nationalistic view on historical figures.
While history explains itself through a point of view and intentional use of facts, scientific explanations are far more fact reliant. Laws of science are not debatable. F = ma is not situational and holds no bias and does not leave out a point of view. Bell’s theorem of probability tells the entire story and is the real explanation of scientific fact. While a writer may carry out an experiment and draw a hypothesis from its findings, the findings rely on evidence and are less prone to bias. Additionally, even hypothesis explain the full scientific reality because it is the truth until overturned – something that I will get into a little later in this essay. Just because someone wants to write about how force equals time divided by energy doesn’t make that a fact. If they wanted to share that truth they would need to prove it first. This difference between these two can also be seen in the way that an explanation is overturned. If a text book from 1850 claims Thomas Jefferson a good man and then 100 years later they find out that he raped several of his slaves, a writer can still claim that he was a great man because he did great things. But in science, if someone in ten years proves beyond doubt that F ≠ ma and that F really equals “xy” then we would no longer be explaining F as m times a but instead x times y. While historical explanations are malleable and can present bias and opinion while also showing fact, science is far more fact based as it requires any conclusion to be followed up by a fact proven with data, and it remains a fact until disproven. This makes it very easy for historical facts to be used for explanations that are good or bad, whereas scientific explanations rarely are deniable, considering they come with evidence and trials to support the findings.
While this similarity is mostly accurate, it would not be a TOK paper without a few exceptions. The one exception calls upon an essay titled “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science.” In this essay, the author points out how scientists choose evidence and data from populations that will skew the data in a way that will prove their hypothesis. This is an example of how bias can infiltrate scientific explanations in a way similar to the tactics seen in history textbooks. However, for the most part, there is a difference between the two subjects’ explanation of fact.
Despite the explanation of facts being largely different between the two studies, they share common ground in the way the explanations evolve and change with time. While I previously stated that history is never overturned using the example of Thomas Jefferson, you would be hard pressed to find a high school or college level student who would declare Jefferson a great man considering the extensive writing that has been done on his relationships with his slaves. A better example of how time can alter historical explanations deals with Christopher Columbus. Once revered as the world’s greatest voyager and explorer, hailed as a hero, given a national holiday is now held largely in disgrace. As time passes and more and more historians uncover his past and the reality of the brutal genocide he led against Native Americans, it would be challenging to find one educated person who still adores this man. Additionally, it would be almost impossible to find a single book printed in the last twenty years about Columbus that does not spend a great deal of time confronting his atrocities. This readjustment of the facts has gone so far as to create a revelation of the man’s character, leading to a popular petition to revoke Columbus day. In history, while exceptions exist, explanations can be overturned with time as people discover new facts and realize new realities.
Science is very similar in the way that it uses time to overturn its explanations. For example, scientists like Aristotle maintained that all planets revolved around the sun. The geocentric theory was the basis of scientific explanations for hundreds of years. Every scientific finding upheld this theory, declaring it fact and every scientific finding used this as an assumption for the basis of their own science experiments. But when Copernicus famously disproved this theory in the 17th century, people agreed in the overruling of the old reality. Yes, it took time but once it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, science changed its perspective. Despite the anger from the Church, scientific community, and the monarch, the truth presented itself over time. While science uses proven studies and evidence to explain knowledge, time and a new scientific discovery of any kind has the ability to disprove this explanation.
At first glance, these two areas of knowledge have little in common. Yet delve deeper and any clear mind can link the way that scientists and historians think. Sure, they are polar opposites in the way they present facts and explanations. One requires bias and the other demands proven fact. But if the history of history and science has taught us anything, it is that these two studies are quite similar in their progression of explanation. While these explanations that carry bias make us feel guilty, for the time being, as time moves on, the truth figures itself out and we make correct our past understanding. Today’s reality is tomorrow’s fiction.