When it comes to forming historical conclusions, one starts with a limited dataset (the sources available to them simply by virtue of how history has played out) with which to draw inferences from. Obviously, these conclusions are restricted to the available data, and so unless new sources are discovered via archeology or other methods, new conclusions cannot be made.

In science, however, datasets are ever-expanding, and tests based on hypotheses can be carried out endlessly. Tests are made in the present, and the landscape of data is constantly evolving and by extension conclusions are constantly be reevaluated.

In other words, in science, time allows for data to build up, but in history, the data we have is virtually fixed (albeit discoveries here and there). Does this mean scientific conclusions are more empirically reliable than historical ones?

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    "What experience and history teach is this — that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it", Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History. So I would say yes.
    – Conifold
    Feb 28 '20 at 1:12
  • Hmm. Perhaps I haven't phrased my question right. I'm not referring to what we learn from history and apply to the present. I'm more talking about truth claims in science and history. Essentially my question is this: aren't scientifically investigated facts (e.g. water boils at such and such temperature) more reliable than historical ones (e.g. Alexander the Great did such and such)?
    – natojato
    Feb 28 '20 at 1:29
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    I would still say yes, and that would explain what Hegel hyperbolized in his quip. We are much more inclined to act upon conclusions delivered by meticulous methodology of (especially hard) sciences than those drawn from history, with its idiosyncratic contexts and morals that are widely open to interpretation. The flip side is that sciences can not weigh in on many "best" course of action questions, and we have no choice but to turn to history for what guidance it can provide on that. So it is a bit of comparing apples to oranges.
    – Conifold
    Feb 28 '20 at 1:38
  • is not science based on history? Are not all datasets historical data? Is not today's events tomorrow's history? Feb 28 '20 at 10:54
  • There is no certainty in science, nor in "human affairs". But what do you mean with "conclusions" ? There are well-known historical fact that are "certain" as much as we can (past events, people, etc.). Obviously, also "hard sciences" are based on facts: the big difference is the role played by theories in them and their capabilities to produce predictions. The "power of predictions" of historical and social science is quite limited, instead. Feb 28 '20 at 13:46

I don't think the question can be usefully answered in the round. If we assume that we have no certain knowledge, which means at least no beliefs which are immune from error, then neither science nor history can offer such knowledge. But you ask about degrees of certainty - whether the conclusions we draw from science are 'more certain' (? less uncertain, more probable) than those we draw from history. It depends on the examples we use.

For instance, it is more probable that Napoleon existed than in the current state of science that string theory is true. But it is more probable that the Darwinian theory of evolution is true than that Queen Victoria married John Brown. One could multiply examples but I can't see that however numerous the examples we used on each side, an overall judgement of 'more certain', more probable, could be assigned either to science or to history.


To date, we have seen the Higgs boson (I believe) twice, and gravitons exactly zero times, and yet both of these are considered properly scientific concepts. So something in your presentation of 'empirical reliability' is decidedly off.

Science is not really as data-driven as most people seem to believe. In science one makes a theory (often by looking at a small handful of curious observations) and then gives a few cogent examples to demonstrate that the theory works in principle. Usually the idea of replicability is sufficient, and so long as a theory can be used functionally within some practice, no one gives much thought to formal replication. Empirical data becomes important for distinguishing between different forms or nuances of the theory, or for elaborating further details — e.g., once we had the basic theory of the electrical properties of semiconductors, people began experimenting with different levels of doping to see how the material properties could tweak the electrical ones — but empirical research guides theories more than it establishes them.

History as a science is not quite as limited as you've suggested. I mean, sure, if we have a historical question like "What were the causes of World War II" it is obviously the case that there was only one World War II. But when seeking out the causes of that war there is a huge amount of empirical data that can be addressed: political speeches, demographic data, diplomatic communities, personal letters of world leaders, newspaper and magazine articles, economic data, patterns in previous historical conflicts, etc, etc. A historian will create a particular theory about the the origins of WWII, and then access as much of this trove of data as needed to make his case. Some other historian who wanted to replicate (or falsify) that theory, would dig further into the data. This is no different in principle from a what physicist or chemist does, except that a historian has the more difficult job of assessing motivation (something that material scientists can ostensibly ignore).

  • Gravity waves more than once. ligo.caltech.edu/page/what-is-ligo Indeed, coincident detection at multiple detectors was an important feature. So an individual gravity wave more than once, on several occasions.
    – puppetsock
    Feb 28 '20 at 18:04
  • @puppetsock: a gravity wave is not a graviton. One is a macro-scale effect and the other a proposed subatomic particle. Feb 28 '20 at 18:06
  • Yeah, but nobody is throwing "graviton" theories around like they are proved. Except a few stringy types, who get laughed at.
    – puppetsock
    Feb 28 '20 at 18:07
  • @puppetsock: I'm not getting your point, and I don't see the relation (or the importance) to the point I was making. Can you explain? Feb 28 '20 at 18:10
  • Theory<==>Experiment Theory<=/=>No experiment That's the point.
    – puppetsock
    Feb 28 '20 at 18:12

A key tenet of science is reproducibility - the same experiment should yield the same results, no matter where or when or by whom it is conducted. If it does not, there is a problem with either the experimental setup, or the underlying theory. This gives us the ability to make predictions about the future with near-certainty (in areas of well-understood science with longstanding theoretical bases). If we do find an experiment that defies our predictions, we have the ability to revise the model to account for this new, unexpected result.

Historical analysis does not, and cannot attempt to do that, because there is no way to control the experimental environment. History can give us a theory about what will happen next, but if that prediction fails to come true, it is impossible to disambiguate whether it was a failure of the theory, or whether is was due to different experimental conditions. Conclusions/predictions drawn from history can be useful, and can even be accurate, but there is no way to evaluate them as consistently and rigorously as one could for a scientific experiment.

One requires data to evaluate a model, but history is essentially a series of anecdotes.

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    There are multiple sciences which are not experimental -- a brief sample list: Astronomy, Cosmology, Geology, Evolutionary Biology, Anthropology, Economic, Sociology. Your presumption that science == laboratory science -- is incorrect, and making this the basis of your comparison will lead to an incorrect conclusion. Also, anecdotes are data, and they accumulate, in a process called consilience. And science, and other empirical fields such as history, use them. We have far greater confidence that WW2 occurred than we do that quarks exist.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 28 '20 at 3:03
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    And yet there is a journal of Experimental Astronomy. researchgate.net/journal/0922-6435_Experimental_Astronomy A journal of experimental geology. jstor.org/stable/pdf/6268.pdf A study of experimental evolution en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_evolution And there are attempts at experimental anthro, economics, and certainly sociology. Even some cosmology questions nature.com/news/2008/080116/full/451236a.html are subject to experiment.
    – puppetsock
    Feb 28 '20 at 15:09
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    @Dcleve Evolutionary biology is very much an experimental core science. You can design experiments and test hypothesis regarding how and what are the mechanisms by which lineages of species differ. By collecting data you can reproducibly look at genomics, proteomics, physiology and anatomy to form conclusions from your hypothesis. Just because we can't test the evolution of all life by recreating it, doesn't make it non-experimental. That's like saying physics is not experimental because I can't turn off conservation of momentum to test the null hypothesis of smashing two pool balls together.
    – Cell
    Feb 28 '20 at 16:28
  • @puppetsock -- also "Cell" -- primarily observational scientists have put significant effort into ways to test some aspects of their science. You have very appropriately pointed out my broad brush is not correct for all details. But the primary data for evolution, geology, astronomy, etc is from direct observation (anecdote), not from experiments, and the core theories of the science were developed and confirmed based on those direct observations.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 28 '20 at 16:37
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    @Dcleve No. Evolutionary biology is no less experimental than physics or chemistry. If I extract tissue from a whale, a monkey, and a human. Culture the tissues and extract total proteins. Then I sequence them, align proteins of interest score them, compare their homology and use principles of mutation rates and statistics to predict how long ago these proteins diverged, how is that primary data any less experimental than say a physicist measuring current, power and plotting them together to determine a relationship? It feels like you don't know what research goes on in evolutionary biology.
    – Cell
    Feb 28 '20 at 17:15

Kolmogorov once confessed his reason to change from History major to Math was because in history one reason is usually not sufficient to deduce a conclusion while in Math as long as it's sufficient then u're done. So from this perspective, the key why science is universally believed to be more certain seems to lie in the application simplicity of its logic (classical propositional, formal, modal, predicate, etc) framework than that of history, which is hard to find the exact sufficient reasons to arrive at any general non-trivial historical conclusion or so called law. The availability of empirical data is of secondary importance theoretically speaking...


The empirical successes of science is "indisputable". That some of them are empirically adequate is in effect certain, as certain as we put a man on the moon. So, while it may sound strange, their relative adequacy is more likely than it is that there was a battle at Waterloo.

Sometimes there are empirical errors, hoaxes, fraudulent claims, mistakes. But it would be a miraculous conspiracy to deny the empirical adequacy of our sciences tout court.

I think I recall being told that it's more likely we're confused about gravity - maybe somewhere in the ocean it stops working - than we are the results of quantum physics.

Of course, you know there are arguments about the "truth" of physics when we go beyond or under the visible.

  • i suppose at one extreme you have world war 2 and 60 million dead, which must in deed have happened. for what it's worth - in this crazy thinking - i would say it less likely than the atomic bomb was faked, or that this computer is not a man made object. you would have to argue that phones and automobiles and houses were types of elaborate naturally occurring vegetables. it much more likely that your spouse is an alien, and that all your history classes were a practical joke by them
    – anon
    Mar 9 '21 at 18:45

The biggest difference is that science, by definition, has strict criteria for drawing conclusions considered to be scientifically justified --that is a key part of what makes it science. We can discern patterns in history, and draw conclusions, but there is no real science of history, so when we say "science teaches us X" and "history teaches us Y" we are making two very different kinds of statements.

History has a wider scope than science, it touches on many things that science cannot, but it does not certify its claims in the way that science does. It's quite possible for two historians to be in absolute disagreement over a historical event in a different way than would be possible for two scientists to disagree over a scientific claim.

We cannot say, in any purely objective, external way, that science is more certain than history. What we can say is that scientific knowledge composes an internally consistent, self-reinforcing, useful and usable network of beliefs, and that any properly certified belief within that network is attested to by all the others in a way that is not and cannot be true of historical claims.

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