Blogs > Cliopatria > The Standing of the Profession

Mar 4, 2004 3:50 am


The Standing of the Profession



Economists are smarting about ranking below astrologers -- but economists rank higher than historians.


Europeans rank the 'scientific" content of these fields --


1. Physics

2. Medicine

3. Biology

4. Astronomy

5. Psychology

6. Astrology

7. Economics

8. History


Here's a link to the pdf version -- the sad, sad chart is on page 27. I wonder what a comparable ranking in America would reveal?

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Michael C Tinkler - 3/6/2004

Really? You think historians are cautious because we remember how often we are wrong?

Would that it were so.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/5/2004

As Tim says, there is a tradition, stronger in Europe, of calling anything a 'science' that is a well-organized body of knowledge. Thus you'll see references to the 'science of theology' and 'les sciences humaines'.

But the paper alludes to science and technology, and the 11 questions the survey subjects had to respond to all had to do with natural science and technology, not a single one involving astrology. The paper then refers to the subject areas as 'disciplines', rather than sciences -- astrology was thrown in as a control question. The paper says that those with the most education, income, and social standing rated astrology the lowest (you had to give astrology even 1 point, as per the methodology of the paper). The survey concludes also that astrology gets graded higher in Spain and Portugal, and other places, and lower towards northern Europe.

Interestingly, the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend once wrote a paper defending the notion that one can't throw out astrology without trial. Paul was all over the map during his career, but came back to the mainstream more before he passed on. But I think he is right. If you bother to state astrology in testable proposition form, and run the tests, and it fails, then that is one thing. But you can't dismiss it without trial. I guess the rub is casting it in testable form -- Paul had an outrageous way of making his points.

Which brings me to Karl Popper. He took his doctorate in educational psychology, and worked for Alfred Adler, but broke from him when Adler made claims for birth-order psychology that Popper didn't think he had put to the test. Decades later, along comes Frank Sulloway, who does what Adler didn't, and does come to conclusions about birth order.

What we don't think of as a natural or even a social science can sometimes be made so by applying the scientific method -- it isn't the subject matter but the method that distinguishes science from non-science.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/4/2004

Michael, I think that there are some ways in which historians of whatever political leaning tend to be very cautious and conservative. Even the Marxist certainty that they knew the end toward which all things worked became a myth to themselves. One of the ways in which I think that we are very cautious is a hesitancy about making predictions. Scientists, as scientists, work toward predictable results. Virtually every prediction that I might once have made turned out to be bunk.


Michael C Tinkler - 3/4/2004

But Astronomy is also listed -- which would imply that the respondents are dim. Of course, that wouldn't bother me.

Let's try a different definition -- "produces predictions which can be believed". That's why I think economics and history do so badly -- everyone knows that economics is -- umm -- a troubled field. Certainly I haven't heard of many historians taking credit for their predictions offered during the last 3 years....


Timothy James Burke - 3/4/2004

If we define "science" as a form of knowledge that produces truth, then most academic inquiry is science. That's way too vague a definition (and casts all non-science in an outer dark of non-truth). Even fiction produces truth.

Science strikes me as something much more precise: the core condition of it involves the making of testable hypotheses that make predictions about observable phenomena and can be concretely verified through reproducible observation or experimentation.

There is a much wider class of knowledge-making practices that return "truthful" results or make systematic use of evidence, including history. I don't even think economics or psychology are sciences in the narrow sense, but they're closer to the mark than history is--certainly *some* psychology fits the narrow definition.

Astrology is another matter. I tend to think in these surveys that many respondents think it is a synonym for astronomy.


Richard Henry Morgan - 3/4/2004

Math doesn't seem to be one of the options given to the survey subjects. I wonder why.


Michael C Tinkler - 3/4/2004

below Astrology though? And Psychology? I know that the social sciences have a pretence of precision but the other side of "science" is the idea that it produces results that are either true or verifiable. Admittedly we can't do much with experimentation but do we make a pretense of saying anything true?


Michael C Tinkler - 3/4/2004

bu


Timothy James Burke - 3/4/2004

Science is the wrong word for it. Precision? Rigor? Sure. Absolutely. But science? Then again, I think that the social sciences in general have a fairly weird idea about what constitutes "science" and tend to be far more positivistic in their conception of it than most natural scientists are. But if that's what's meant in a question like this by science, then I freely concede that economics both is actually more scientific and is much more concerned with being perceived to be scientific than history is.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/4/2004

Tim,
We've touched on the illusions of a positivist history before and I'm no advocate, but don't you agree that there are elements of science in what we do. We don't have a scientific method, if for no other reason than because we can't replicate experiments to verify conclusions. But we do deal with hard evidence, do we not? Sure, you turn it and see different facets, place it in different contexts and see different relationships, but the data of evidence has an essential fixture to it, does it not?


Michael C Tinkler - 3/4/2004

But this is after 150 years of working hard to convince Europeans that what we do is Wissenschaft, not 'value added narrative.'


Timothy James Burke - 3/4/2004

If someone said, "History sucks compared to economics (or astrology)", I might be unhappy. But if someone (especially Europeans) asserts that history is less *scientific* than economics, I say, "Well, yeah. So?" I mean, it's true. It's got nothing to do with relative value, though.

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