What Similarities and Differences Are There Between Historical and Scientific Explanations?

It is in our human nature to explain everything. Naturally, there are many ways of knowing. Application of these, often defined by certain methodology, are frequently classified into areas of knowledge. Therefore it is natural for one to see similarities and differences within the process of attaining knowledge in different areas of knowledge. When the method forming scientific and historical models for human understanding of the world are examined, many similarities can be seen. These differences and similarities can also be seen when products of explanations are assessed.
When scientific and historical explanations are compared one can see many similarities. Empirical evidence are used in both scientific and historical explanations. For example, scientists have found a viable model of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) replication through empirical evidence. In 1958, Matthew Meselsohn and Franklin Stahl devised and executed an experiment to study DNA replication1. They attached two isotopes of nitrogen to each strand of DNA to determine what proportions of the isotope were present in DNA strands after multiple replication process.
They observed that after one replication of DNA, each new molecule of DNA possessed one strand with the heavy isotopes of nitrogen. This evidence showed that the replication of DNA is semiconservative – the idea of copying via template2. The use of empirical evidence helped to explain the DNA replication process, even though one could not see the actual strands of DNA replicating. Looking at historical explanations one can see similar applications of empirical evidence. For example, historians such as John Lewis Gaddis came up with theories about the cold war.

From observing policies of the United States and the Soviet Union, Gaddis have formulated theories about spheres of influences, and how these spheres of influences led to rising tension between the two super powers and eventually to the cold war. One may conclude that this explanation was formed by analyzing historical evidence such as foreign policies at the time, internal documents, and general events. The process of “analyzing” these sources produce empirical evidence. The use of empirical evidence is used to explain a point in time that one cannot experience the second time.
Similarities also exist in the limitation of scientific and historical explanations. If one were to use invalid empirical data then the final conclusion would be false. For example, it is known that all matter is equally effected by gravity. Yet if one were to observe objects falling in a normal environment it would be hard pressed to come to the conclusion that all objects fall at the same rate. It is difficult for 1 Damon, Alan, Randy McGonegal, Patricia Tosto, and William Ward. Higher Level Biology. Harlow: Heinemann International, 2007. Print. 2 ibid one to conceive that a lead ball and a feather would fall at the same rate.
Naturally one would reach the conclusion that a lead ball falls faster than a feather – which is essentially false unless observed in a vacuum. Also if one were to apply laws of Newton, that are constructed by empirical data, to subatomic particles that are moving near speed of light one would reach false conclusions. This is because concepts such as gravity appear to be negligible when particles are moving at near speed of light. In history one must often rely on the use of evidence such as artifacts, eyewitness accounts, and formal documentation to gain knowledge.
For example, empirical evidence such as the carved face of the Great Sphinx of Giza can provide how the creator of the statue looked like. If the creator decided to enhance the facial features of the sphinx a historian would lead to the false conclusion about the appearance of the creator. Some key differences can be seen in historical and scientific explanations. Historical explanations are generally open for interpretation. Historical evidence may be chosen and aggregated in certain ways to support one’s argument. As a student of history I constantly shape facts in accordance to my thesis. The thesis comes from my own beliefs.
For example, such thesis is claiming that differing ideologies played a major role in the development of the Cold War. Most scholars like J. L. Gaddis and Sewell agree that ideology played only a minor role in the development of the Cold War in the late 1940s. However, I can claim that ideology played a very important role in the development of the Cold War and present my evidence to support the argument. Unlike most science my explanation of ideologies in the Cold War does no need to be accepted by the community. In history two or more different explanations may exist and both would be valid.
In science, most explanations are not regarded as valid unless the majority of the scientific community accept the explanation. One salient example of this is the discovery and explanation of cold fusion. In March of 1989 Martin Fleischmann, one of the world’s leading electro-chemists, and Stanley Pons announced cold fusion3. Nuclear energy, like that which power the sun produced at room temperature, giving off more energy than what was originally put in. This promised to produce energy that is clean and efficient; ending energy problems such as global warming4.
Immediately after the announcement prestigious labs such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and California Institute of Technology (CALTECH) rushed to reproduce the experiments of Fleischmann and Pons. 5 However, MIT and CALTECH did not produced the same results and could not come to accept explanation. In science, generally, if one cannot reproduce the same result from experiments the explanation is regarded as invalid. Therefor in science only one 3 Cetta, Denise S. “Cold Fusion Is Hot Again – 60 Minutes – CBS News. ” Breaking News Headlines: Business, Entertainment & World News – CBS News. 9 Apr. 2009. Web. 27 Jan. 2010. 4 ibid 5 ibid explanation can exist. However, one can claim that similarities exist in scientific and historical explanations because some scientific explanations are rejected by the community even though they are true. In this case there would be two scientific explanations but one would be invalid. In the case of Cold Fusion it was later discovered that even though nuclear fusion was taking place, results were always varied. The scientific community originally rejected the explanation and discovery because they were unable to reproduce the results of Fleischmann and Pons.
Both scientific and historical explanations are generally supplied by empirical evidence. In science one draws explanations from empirical evidence according to predefined rules. For example, a negative charge is repelled from the center of what is named an “atom”, therefore something must exist in the center of the “atom” and it must have a positive charge. This explanation is drawn from the rule “positive and negative deflect”. In history, however, there are no such apparent rules. A key difference that is evident in scientific and historical explanations are the extent to which one can draw empirical evidence.
In science one must follow precise rules weather to accept or reject empirical evidence to support explanations. In history, however, there are no such rules one must follow – other than considering the validity of evidence. Some people, such as Henry Gee, an editor of the prestigious science journal Nature, claim that historical explanations do not have similarities with scientific explanations. “they [historical explanations] can never be tested by experiments, and so they are unscientific. . . . No science can ever be historical”6. This suggests that unless the explanation is adequately “tested” it is not science.
One can see that this is true to a certain extent. As said before, science follow certain rules in which the extent to which one can extrapolate evidence is limited. This generally leads to explanations that are much more integrated and logical. However when considering scientific explanations that cannot be “tested” in a laboratory that are generally regarded as valid in the scientific community, one can see that they bare similarities to historical explanations. An example of this is the asteroid-impact hypothesis, which explain the fossil records of the dinosaurs in terms of an impact of large asteroid.
This cannot obviously be tested in a laboratory, but provide a viable explanation. It is evident that historical and scientific explanations have many similarities and differences. Use of empirical evidence is present in both historical and scientific explanations. They both have the same limitations when using empirical evidence. Similarities and differences are also present in the community aspect. By seeing what similarities and differences exist in science and history it is evident how limitations and advantages of ways of knowing play a role in their respected explanations. Cleland, Carol E. “Methodological and Epistemic Differences between Historical Science and Experimental Science. ” Print. Works Cited Cetta, Denise S. “Cold Fusion Is Hot Again – 60 Minutes – CBS News. ” Breaking News Headlines: Business, Entertainment & World News – CBS News. 19 Apr. 2009. Web. 27 Jan. 2010. . Cleland, Carol E. “Methodological and Epistemic Differences between Historical Science and Experimental Science. ” Print. Damon, Alan, Randy McGonegal, Patricia Tosto, and William Ward. Higher Level Biology. Harlow: Heinemann International, 2007. Print.