At the descriptive level, history is falsifiable based on archaeological evidence and textual sources. But this applies only to descriptions of historical events. Yet historians presumable do more than simply describe what happened in the past, they try to explain it and find patterns that can be generalized. Consider the following two examples:

  • The industrial revolution happened in Europe during the 19th century.
  • The industrial revolution was a result of the ideas of the enlightenment, and the disappearance of the feudal system.

I can understand how (1) is falsifiable, but I fail to see how (2) can ever be falsifiable.

  • Are statements like (2) ever falsifiable?
  • If not, what is the purpose of studying history beyond a simple cataloging of events? Don't explanatory accounts of history become meaningless - or at least a form of interesting fiction? Does the study of history serve any purpose at all if we can't explain and generalize patterns?
  • If explanatory accounts of history aren't falsifiable, what does this say about ideas like those of Hegel or Marx?
  • How do you falsify other statements that you consider to be falsifiable? What do you consider to be the purpose of the falsification of a statement? Not having heard your personal meaning for "falsification," I can't speak to it directly, but I have found a tendency for people to assign a meaning to it which can never be attained, not even by science, limiting the usability of the definition, so answers to those two questions may help you.
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 21 '16 at 0:26
  • @CortAmmon : The statement "Donald Trump was the king of France in 1789" is falsifiable since it is possible to design an experiment (searching for and consulting relevant historical records and documents) which verifies whether this was true or false. The statement "The chief of the Sioux Nation in 1325 was called "Cynical Fox"" is not falsifiable. Jan 21 '16 at 0:37
  • How does it verify that the statement was true? Consider a 1984-esque world where the historical records are easily corruptible. Are you presuming the existence of a perfectly reliable historical source?
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 21 '16 at 0:52
  • I draw correlaries between this unreliable source and the challenge of "falsification" in a scientific domain using only statistical means. How do you falsify something when you cannot 100% trust that your results are not caused by measurement error? Science, in theory, does it all the time. Whatever it does to resolve this issue could be applied to historical sciences, yielding an answer to your question.
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 21 '16 at 0:58
  • This is a nice illustration of an often forgotten thesis that it is only theories as wholes that are testable, not individual sentences. What goes into interpreting the second sentence are things like education increasing the likelihood of Watt inventing the steam engine, Watt's steam engine increasing efficiency of industrial procedures, economic mobility increasing the likelihood of them being implemented, etc., etc., which individually can be interpreted and corroborated through sources, adding up to such general surmises.
    – Conifold
    Jan 21 '16 at 18:52

This question comes up very frequently on the podcast EconTalk by economist Russ Roberts, and in particular is the subject of an episode asking whether Economics is a Science.

Statements of the second form are sometimes clearly falsifiable (the Industrial Revolution, for example, was not the result of advances in particle physics), but sometimes statements fall under an umbrella of plausible-but-debatable. As Roberts and his guest Noah Smith debate in the discussion I referenced, there are lots of questions in the social sciences (making claims similar to statement #2) that seem ultimately unresolvable, in that intelligent, well-informed people look at the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions (as two examples, they discuss in particular how the great depression ended and what effect the 2008 US stimulus had on the economy).

What is the purpose of studying history beyond a simple cataloging of events?

It is possible to take a Bayesian approach to studying history. For example, one could start with the opinion that "War is never justified," then look at an event like World War II or the American Civil War and conclude "well, maybe it is justified in certain scenarios." Such a person might still disagree with other reasonable, well-informed people about what specifically counts as a just war.

Another approach is suggested by Aristotle: the point of studying history is to give us examples of how to live a virtuous life to emulate, so that we too may be virtuous. "Selfless people tend to lead happy lives" is (I would argue, anyway) an easier to test hypothesis then about macro-scale societal causes and effects.


Statements like (2) can be falsified in the exact same way any scientific hypothesis can be falsified. Observations can be made which demonstrate that the hypothesis must be false.

Of course, this immediately goes down a tricky road of "what does it mean to falsify something anyways?" A radical skeptic might argue that science never falsifies any of its theories, because its tests all involve random errors that could have induced any arbitrary results. Most would, instead, set some criteria for what falsification is (such as using p-values or confidence intervals), but the particular criteria itself is subject to debate.

It is easier for science to produce new observations. It can always run new experiments, while it is hard to "run an experiment" on the 19th century. However, new historical data which had not been included in previous studies can count as new observations. There is also the question of whether reading about history counts as an observation, but that's along the same lines as any skeptic argument.


Explanatory vs. Descriptive Accounts of History

Explanatory accounts are tricky. There can be shades of truth to explanations, while descriptions are easier to falsify. For instance, consider the following explanatory accounts of the Russian Revolution:

  1. The Bolshevik revolution was due to the public's dissatisfaction with emperor Donald Trump's controversial one-child-per-family rule.
  2. The Bolshevik revolution was due to the public's dissatisfaction with Tsarism and the government's inability to adequately handle rebellion.

Both of these statements are explanatory and falsifiable. There was no emperor Donald Trump, nor did he enact a one-child policy, and historical accounts attest to this. The second is much more believable, yet no less falsifiable - it is possible that some Russian polling agency asked the public their opinion of Tsarism vs. Bolshevism or that, statistically speaking, the military of Tsarist Russia was too weak to adequately handle a violent, politically motivated terrorist group from overcoming the government.

The important characteristic of good explanatory theories of history is that they can be reasonably falsified. For instance, the American revolution was surely influenced by Enlightenment philosophy from Hobbes and Locke: this similarity can be seen in the writings of America's founding fathers. Notable examples include Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. If one were to test the hypothesis that these thinkers were more influenced by Islam, the artwork of Brunelleschi, and Native American Shamanism, the evidence is exceedingly shallow and tangential. While it's not as cut and dried as falsifying the notion that the American founding fathers were all Rastafarians who rode mutant horses into battle against the British, it can be done.

What is the purpose of history outside of solely cataloguing interesting events?

This question is harder to answer, but may be informed by my response to the prior question regarding the value of explanatory accounts of history. Since I've established that falsifiable explanatory theories of history are at least conceivable (thus possible), it follows that there is some value in working toward an explanatory model of the "arc of history". It is important to understand which thoughts and theories influenced real political movements so that we can understand how our world came to be, both from a theoretical/philosophical perspective and a realistic and descriptive perspective. While such explanations may not be necessary to understand how history has progressed, they may help to show us why history has progressed in the way that it has.

RE: Marx, Hegel:

Marx's theories may be more falsifiable than you're letting on. Marx made explicit predictions about how the industrial revolution would pan out - and to this day hasn't been so correct in predicting that workers would seize the means of production from the elites to create a socialist utopia (this may be a bit simplistic, but was present in his writings).

Personally, I don't think either of these philosophers deserve much credit, in part because their explanations were unclear and their projections of the future were not realized.

Last words:

Political theory is an iffy subject, often mixing descriptive historical accounts with moral philosophy, statistics, and social science. As a student of philosophy and history, it is important to not only ask how things happened, but why --and to develop theories that adequately (and falsifiably) address both of these points.

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