Fireside Friday: June 4, 2021

Fireside this week! A little break after wrapping up our look at Europa Universalis IV. The next things coming up on the blog are going to be a look at who the Romans were and who they thought they were and an extension of our examination of EU4 into one of Paradox’s other titles, Victoria II. The series on identity in the Roman world is likely to be the one that appears first. After those, I am hoping to be ready to dive into the long-awaited discussion of doctrine and perhaps also trench warfare.

I have very nearly run out of pictures of me in a chair by the fireplace, so here is a picture of my cat assisting me in sorting my books. I would like to claim that the reflective clipboard there was an intentional part of the composition, but it was in fact a result of the fact that I am disorganized continually.

For this week’s musing, I thought I might talk a bit about the relationship between historians and political scientists. I sparked a bit of a teapot tempest on twitter when I noted that at a panel at the annual meeting of the Society for Military History on the legacy of Samuel Huntington’s The Soldier and the State (1957), which still exerts quite an influence on thinking within the military, that the Q&A had turned into a mild and friendly but amusing critique of political science as a discipline:

To be clear, the general consensus of the discussion tended towards, “useful interlocutors with whom we will frequently disagree.” I’ll admit I was more than a bit surprised that some political scientists took umbrage; it has been my experience that any meeting between political scientists and historians involves at least some gentle ribbing by both parties about the differences between the disciplines (more so if alcohol is served at the event). But then it occurred to me that the relationship between the two disciplines is exactly the sort of inside baseball that these firesides are for.

So let’s talk about it: why is there a cordial tension between political science and history?

History and political science were bound to be interlinked disciplines, because they generally work with some of the same evidence base (historical case studies derived from the evidence of the past) and are often interested in the same questions (how polities function); where they differ most is in methods. Fundamentally, history – the older of the two disciplines by approximately 2,300 years – is a discipline of the humanities and applies humanistic methods (like close-reading, textual analysis, and so on), while political science attempts to answer questions about how polities function through scientific – or if you are being less generous, ‘scientific’ – methods. It would be a bit too simplistic to say that history is a ‘words’ discipline and poli-sci is a ‘numbers’ discipline (some historians use statistical methods, many political scientists focus on theory which is often not numerically quantified), though overall there is more emphasis on arguments which can be quantified or expressed in equations in political science than in history.

That methodology though, is in service of different goals. Political science is fundamentally oriented towards a search for generalizable conclusions – things which are true not merely in a case study, but about many societies more generally and may thus be applied out broadly. History, by contrast, as a discipline tends to focus on contingency, which in turn minimizes (without fully rejecting) the possibility of generalizable conclusions. To be a historian is to accept that, for instance, Greece and Rome are quite different and that conclusions from one society often cannot be safely generalized to the other (much less to say, early modern France). Moreover, even in societies that are very similar accidents of chance and local conditions can still mean that conclusions in one society might not generalize to another. Because of that focus, historians tend to operate at a much higher level of granularity – we tend to ‘zoom in’ a lot more – which in turn means that our studies tend to be consumed by this non-generalizable contingent elements of history.

All of which produces a very predictable cycle. First, historians examine the primary source evidence for past societies and produce processed historical interpretations of them (that is, they produce history from evidence). Though the number is by no means zero, relatively few political scientists interact with the raw evidence of societies even modestly deep in the past (though this is not the only form of evidence they use, see note below); all historians do, by definition. Consequently, the built up history – which is again, a processed good produced by historians out of evidence – is then used as a foundation for political scientists to produce research arguing for a generalized conclusion about societies (often embodied in a mathematical system which by necessity has taken irreducibly complex societies and reduced them to shorthand formulas). And then, with all the constancy of the North Star, historians cry foul at the generalized conclusion, producing from their very focused research on the idiosyncrasies of various societies a thousand and one exceptions to the generalized principle (which may or may not, in the event, actually overwhelm the value of the principle; even good rules of thumb have exceptions, after all).

(A word on political science’s evidence base for a moment. Obviously, historian-intermediated history (or historian-intermediated ‘data,’ but I think we should be cautious with that word – ‘data’ implies a clear truth value which the historian in me is reluctant to offer) is not the sole source of the ‘data’ that underlies political science work. A significant minority of political science is experimental – attempting to replicate the actual scientific method – though this remains very much a minority because controlled experiments in things like war or tax policy are difficult or impossible. A lot more political science relies on using modern administrative data produced by modern states. The tricky thing there is that this data doesn’t go very far into the past, relatively speaking, before it needs a historian to mediate it or risk catastrophic mistakes of interpretation. Consequently, for societies much older than the present (really, anything much before 1900), political scientists are often substantially reliant on historians to create their data from the historical evidence. Finally theory and behavior studies from the sciences proper also often serve as evidentiary foundation for political science studies as well, much as they do in some of the other social sciences)

This relationship is compounded by meaningful differences in the standards of evidence and argumentation between the two disciplines. Historians are generally trained to reject simplification and abstraction; you aren’t supposed to paper over exceptions, you are supposed to dutifully note every last one in your footnotes. By contrast, the goal of political science is to extrapolate general rules which by necessity must simplify substantial variations in the evidence in order to produce rules of thumb on which policy may be based. Likewise, historical argumentation comes with a greater emphasis on historiography – the study of the history of the history. There is thus a general expectation that a historian of a topic is familiar not only with the topic itself, but with the decades or even centuries of historical writing on that topic (the history of the history of a topic, as it were). Political science, by contrast, isn’t about documenting the past but detecting systems for the present and so tends to be quicker to ‘deprecate’ (in the software sense of ‘declare obsolete’) older scholarship; this isn’t a universal tendency, some political scientists are very good at assembling the ‘history of the debate’ but the pressure to do so tends to be somewhat less (but with a greater demanded awareness of contemporary theories). Consequently, when historians cry foul, they often do so in evidentiary terms which aren’t as applicable with political science, leading to frustrations all around.

On the flip side, by political science standards, a lot of historical studies go absolutely nowhere. A micro-history that studies a small town in the 19th century and concludes that its social organization is entirely sui generis and cannot be meaningfully extrapolated to anywhere else is a potentially really interesting historical study, but not a particularly exciting political science study. Because history is in part focused on documentation (paired with interpretation), we’re a lot more willing to spend a bunch of time documenting things which, in the event, were only significant to a handful of people. I have, on this basis, heard political scientists describe this side of the historical method as ‘boring.’ Moreover, historians are often quite resistant to reducing their conclusions to data, especially numerical data (we are, after all, scholars of the humanities which tends to make us fundamentally word people).

And to be clear, this is fine. Different disciplines have different methodologies. Pure ‘death of the author’ literary analysis would also be a hard sell in a history context (because providing the context for the production of a work is what we do) but is perfectly appropriate in a literature setting (or historical study focused on modern reception). But because historians and political scientists tend to play in the same pond (particularly with political and military historians), those different methodologies tend to interact rather more, which leads to some fairly predictable friction.

Now clearly I am not impartial between these disciplines; I have picked a side. When it comes to the study of historical polities, I think the humanistic method is more likely to yield useful insights than a political-science method (especially in the ancient world). Indeed, I often think that the aspiration to be a science frequently holds political science back; I have already written about how I think some problems are not susceptible to the scientific method. And especially when it comes to the ancient world – where the actual evidence is often far weaker than a quick browse of the secondary scholarship would implyI often find myself in the historian’s typical position: the ‘you can’t know that’ guy pulling the brakes on Big Arguments fueled by poli-sci data-centric approaches. Or alternately, the annoying fellow whose ancient evidence base contradicts pleasant theories constructed on databases that don’t extend back before 1500 (e.g. the ‘democratic peace theory‘ which works more-or-less with a modern dataset but collapses when ancient examples are included; representative ancient governments went to war with each other all the time). Generally, I’d say the modernist bias in political science is a real weakness; when pre-modern evidence is used it is often used with startling lack of nuance and care for the complications it typically poses.

The conversion of ‘evidence’ into ‘data’ is also often a violent and distorting process. Databases are only as good as what is included in them, as neatly exposed by a recent paper pointing out that Native American conflicts had been almost entirely left out of most major Poli-sci conflict databases; but then that study has its own flaws because its neatly graphed figures are heavily distorted by the evidentiary bias to report conflicts between Native American and colonial powers and then not necessarily report warfare that did not involve colonial powers (in some cases because such conflicts leave limited evidence).

(Also, on the educational side, I have also found that some – by no means all! – political science programs teach their students to write in the rigid pattern and language of a scientific paper, a form sometimes adopted by political scientists (often where appropriate, sometime less so). Of course that style of writing has its purpose (especially in the STEM fields), but teaching that style in lieu of traditional persuasive essay writing is doing many students a disservice. Even a political scientist isn’t likely to use that rigid format outside of narrowly academic environments and most students in those programs aren’t going to go on to do the sort of poli-sci research which demands that kind of writing anyway. I do not know how general a phenomenon that is in teaching, but I seem to encounter students trained this way with some regularity (and never from the STEM fields narrowly construed).)

All of that said, political science produces useful insights. We have, in fact, just been discussing the neo-realist theory of Kenneth Waltz, a political scientist, which I find a very useful frame – not the only one mind you, but a useful one – for understanding the behavior of states and interstate systems. Likewise, Stephen Biddle’s classification of the ‘modern system of war’ is a work of political science and while I have some very strong quibbles with how he attempts to assess and express that theory mathematically, the overall argument is sound. Moreover, the interaction whereby political scientists suggest grand conclusions and then historians cry foul is also a valuable knowledge-generating process, assuming that one is reading both the original grand conclusion and the objections (too often, it seems to me, writers aiming at a popular audience read only the original, grand conclusions and remain blissfully unaware of their reception by historians). Ideally, the best of those grand conclusions survive the process and become foundational theory which both political scientists and historians can draw on when trying to understand events and societies in the past.

In any event, this relationship goes a long way to explaining the amiable competitive tension that often exists between the two fields. I was rather surprised by a number of political scientists on Twitter who seemed caught entirely unawares by the existence of that tension, since I have found that it emerges quite quickly any time historians and political scientists get together. I rather wonder if some of the folks caught off-guard by that might do better to hang out with more historians.

On to recommendations!

Drachinifel has a podcast-style interview with Jon Parshall (co-author on Shattered Sword which I have recommended in this very space) talking about the Battle of Midway and the American naval position in 1942 in the Pacific more generally. Parshall is an expert on Midway and 1942 in the Pacific and Drachinifel – whose channel is all about warships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – asks good questions, so the resulting discussion is really quite good, especially where they get outside of the four corners of Shattered Sword and start discussing the broader context of the events of the year.

While we are on podcasts, I should note that I was on a podcast with Murray, Jasper and Mark over at Ancient Warfare Magazine‘s Ancient Warfare Podcast. We discussed one of the topics of my current research, the Roman adoption of mail armor in the third century and its impact in the second century BC. It was a good, fairly freewheeling discussion (we occasionally got a touch off topic) and is well worth a listen. The lorica hamata, introduced in the third century to Rome (invented by the Gauls in the Danube River basin) is a lot less talked about and focused on compared to the more iconic segmented plate ‘lorica segementata’ (it is worth noting that while lorica hamata, ‘cuirass of hooks’ is actual classical Latin, lorica segmentata, ‘segmented cuirass’ is never used in our sources and is instead a modern invention terminology wise). But the hamata seems to have been substantially more common, in use by the Romans from the late third century BC through to the end of the empire in the West some seven centuries and change later. Unlike the segmentata, is also survives as an extremely common armor-form throughout the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, Season 2 of Peopling the Past‘s podcast series is starting up, focusing on Roman Art and Archaeology. They begin with a fantastic discussion of some of the truly incredible remains at the Roman fort of Vindolanda with Dr. Elizabeth M. Greene, where the fairly unique local soil has preserved all sorts of things which would normally never survive in most archaeological sites – in this case, literally hundreds of shoes. And again, I make this plea: if Peopling the Past is not on your normal blog list, do go and check it out – each of their posts features classical scholars doing really interesting projects. For instance, in late April they featured Dr. Christine Johnston talking about Egyptian lifeways and the influence of the Nile on them, complete with some processes of production which ought to seem mighty familiar to readers of ACOUP.

Finally, book recommendations! This week, I am going to recommend I. Haynes, Blood of the Provinces: The Roman Auxilia and the Making of Provincial Society from Augustus to the Severans (2013). While the Roman legions get the lion’s share of the press for Rome’s armies, beginning in the Late Republic, Rome began recruiting units of allied non-Italians to fight in units that became known as auxilia which were standardized under the reign of the first emperor, Augustus (r. 31BC – 14AD) and by his death made up approximately half of the Roman army. These auxiliaries were paid professionals recruited from the provinces (generally from non-citizen provincials) organized into cohorts (of infantry) and alae (of cavalry) which might be deployed alone or attached to the (larger) legions, who were rewarded with grants of citizenship on retirement. Often, as Haynes notes, more flexible tactically than the legions themselves, they both screened the legions in combat and sometimes carried out the battle entirely without the intervention of the legions.

Haynes goes behind just the battlefield role of the auxilia though, laying out the evidence for their recruitment, the conditions of their military service, the quirks of religious practice, their equipment and so on. This aspect of the book, that it is an effort at a really complete study (in contrast to older books on the topic like D.B. Saddington’s The Development of the Roman Auxiliary Forces from Caesar to Vespasian (1982)) means that the book touches on a lot more than tactics and combat (though, again, it does address equipment, tactics and combat!). The date range is also welcome – Haynes efforts, in as much as the evidence allows, to follow the institutions of the auxilia from their formalization under Augustus all the way to the Severans, where the grant of citizenship to all free person in the Empire (the Constitutio Antoniniana (212AD) – try having to say that at speed during a lecture) made the institution fundamentally redundant. That advantage of date range comes out as Haynes is also to identify changes, such as the tendency for the ‘ethnic’ quality of auxiliary units, in equipment, fighting style and identity, to wane over time.

The book is not short – 382 pages not counting end-matter (and priced to match) – but while it is not really written for a popular audience, it is written quite well and easy to follow. The length allows Haynes the virtue of taking a good deal of the evidence, both from the surviving literature of the period but also a lot of epigraphic and representational evidence (the book is furnished with many good images, especially of funerary artwork showing auxiliary soldiers), and putting it directly in front of the reader, so you not only have his conclusions but you understand the kind of evidence that exists as the basis for them. And while the book is by no means dumbed down, it is also quite easy to follow for a non-specialist; key terms are translated and I think a regular reader will require only minimal wiki-walks to keep up.

Frankly, for anyone looking to understand imperial armies which make use of provincial manpower to fill their ranks – both how they do that but also what that is like for the folks in question and how those soldiers relate to the structures of imperial power they are joining, reading Blood of the Provinces and last fireside‘s Soldiers of Empire together will put your feet firmly in the real (a handy thing both for historical interest, but also for worldbuilders looking to make empires that actually work!)

49 thoughts on “Fireside Friday: June 4, 2021

  1. Paradigms gonna paradigm. I do find the intersection between only incommensurable paradigms interacting in a shared space fascinating, thank you.

  2. I find it deeply interesting that in the USA (and the English-speaking world at large, I suppose ?) history and political science may be seen as frenemies; in Italy there’s nothing like that at all, as far as I can tell historians and political science do not generally have any kind of relationship here.

  3. Humanities beef!
    I also note that poli sci folks catch some flak from both sides; the harder scientists still don’t consider them a “real” science because of how shaky and scarce their data sources often are. Then again, with all the politically charged theories that come out of that field, maybe they’re just intellectually scrappy sorts.

      1. Yes, but econ is “higher” on the “math-envy” scale. Intellectual status (doing only major disciplines) runs as follows: math/physics/chem/bio/econ/poli sci/sociology/psych. (History is over in humanities and doesn’t appear on this scale.)

        1. Speaking as a chemist, I’m not sure economists do less math than chem or bio.

          I think if you’re trying to figure out whether we’re harder scientists, it’s not the amount of math that works in our favor but the fact that we can actually design experiments that isolate individual factors and then repeat them to confirm. As opposed to just getting big data sets and “torturing it until it confesses.”

          1. Speaking as an economist, the level of math is somewhat dependent on your field of study but typically is fairly close to physics in the level of math expected. And, from experience, students with a background in physics (or engineering) actually do better in graduate study than those with a background *in economics*.

    1. Yeah, Political Scientists just look like amateurs here ?

      It’s normally a big no no to minimize the existence of pieces of data that don’t fit your model !

      And Feynman might have said that “Philosophy [and history ?] of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”, but I’m not convinced.
      In fact physicists are lucky because they *have* to be aware of 3 more or less incompatible models of Physics : “classical” (modern) Physics which you learn first, less accurate and more restrictive in their application, but still extremely useful, and “modern” (postmodern) Quantum Physics and Relativity.
      And the way that you gather your data, which data you end up with, how you interpret the data, which data you’re going to reject as a “fluke”… is going to depend on the model that you use.

      Finally, without (mathematical) statistics, specifically without quantifying your uncertainty about each piece of numeric data, that data isn’t worth squat.
      Your example about Native American conflicts is especially concerning : a paper that did the minimum work on uncertainty issues would have shown the much wider uncertainty about intra-Native conflicts on the graphs themselves !?

  4. I always find it interesting these kinds of divides between the “proffessional” fields. Like military history is one of them, where we have tha academic military historians (who want to figure out how military stuff worked) and the officer-type military historian who is mostly interested in learning how that can affect the next war.

    (not that the professional type cant do good work, they need to knowhow things worked in order to learn from them after all) but the difference is often interesting.

  5. I’m glad a true historian (I only have a bachelor’s degree myself) has the same opinion of Polysci as I do! Took a few mandatory courses and the whole thing seemed very woolly to me. Too much taking large leaps on small evidence, even to my inexperienced eyes! I remember pointing out the whole “but ancient democracies were at each other’s throats ALL THE TIME” thing to my Polysci professor when he brought up the Democratic Peace Theory as some universal truth, and getting a rather rude reply about it!

    1. In Political Science’s defence, most of them wouldn’t see ancient democracies as falling within their vision of democracy. Certainly, when I studied Pol Sci. many years ago, the lecturer was at pains to point out that many of the states we reflexively think of as democracies are not usefully defined as such until quite recently. He excluded the UK, for example, until some point either 1918, or 1921.

      If your definition of democracy requires that wide a franchise, then most ancient democracies don’t count because they’re a wholly different type of polity to modern democracies. And given that everyone in Political Science understands this, historians bringing up counter examples from Greece is not massively helpful – especially given that this comes up in ~every first year undergraduate international relations lecture.

  6. Ah, so history and political science are two layers of a predictive coding structure. Neat! Well, I guess to properly test this concept, are there well known examples of political scientists being really confused by some historical finding because it badly violated some grand principle, asking historians to investigate more, and it eventually being discovered that the principle was right all along, the initial historical findings were simply incorrect/incomplete?

    1. Cats like that are scarce in Europe. They’re said to bring bad luck if they cross your path, and called “witch’s cat”. Pure black used to be killed and most of the descendants have white socks, white collar or some white spots on their face.

      1. Of black cats I’ve seen in the US, most of them actually have a small white spot on their throat. I’ve idly speculated that this is an evolutionary adaptation to an environment which contains witch hunters.

        1. I meant simpler than that. Dead pure black cats don’t pass their genes. My reply was a bit ambiguous.

  7. It depends to some extent how you’re classifying the discipline of Political Science. If you take the late-modern/post modern definition, the field attempts in many ways to use empirical studies to justify pre-existing ideological projects.
    However, if you’re taking the longer view as espoused by Aristotle, the field has a much much longer pedigree which is not linked to attempts to ape “what the cool STEM kids are doing” with a “look mom, democracy is scientifically better”.

  8. Time to plug a brand new classification system, based on how mathy different fields are. the categories are:

    1. Pure logic; math, some parts of philosophy. Computer science is an applied version.

    No data collection as such, instead logical proofs get used.

    2. Controlled experiments: Physics, chemistry, probably most lab based biology fields. Most engineering fields are an applied version.

    You can do very accurate controlled experiments, and create very accurate mathematical models as a result.

    3. Observation based: Geology, Atmospheric science, (any kind of planetary science, really.), larger scale biology fields like ecology, astronomy and related, probably paleontology. The boundary with applied fields isn’t as sharp here it seems, since we aren’t building stars or deliberately terraforming things at the moment, something like mining geology is an example.

    You can’t do controlled experiments, but can use results of the previous category, and good observations, to still understand things well.

    4. Statistical fields: Parts of economics and political science, psychology, medical controlled trials/epidemiology. Things like marketing, parts of public health, finance are applied versions

    Lots of numbers and data exist, but with a lot more factors involved, exact controlled experiments or tight observations don’t happen. Models act more as a logical guide than an exact prediction, and statistical concerns becomes much more important: Are you comparing equivalent groups, are things randomized well, can you generalize, are you measuring errors/statistical significance wrong, etc.

    5. Humanities: Parts of political science, area studies, studies of past humans (history, archaeology, and related), studies of current culture, parts of philosophy.

    For these fields, collecting good number based data is difficult, and using math for predictions almost impossible. Other methods have to be used. These are also the fields where “(person) said (thing)” gets used commonly as an argument. (Economics and STEMish fields do the “deprecating” thing described in this post, models and results are taught independently of who created them apart from naming some things after people.)

    Thinking this way leads to:

    1. The disagreements described in this post are between a category 4 and 5 field, so likely other disagreements happen between pairs of fields in these categories.

    2. “Is it science” is a category 4 thing. these fields use data, numbers, and such, plus borrow methods from earlier categories, but don’t use them anywhere near as exactly. Categories 2 and 3 are mostly agreed as science, category 5 agreed as not, category 1 and applied 2 and 3 aren’t but very closely related.

    This isn’t something i personally care about, the methods are what they are and what they are called isn’t important.

    3. Fields will jump categories over time. Most started as category 5 if you go back far enough, but as more data comes in, and results can be more accurately reproduced, you will see changes.

    1. I’d note 3 and 4 aren’t just observational. There’s lab experiment at small scales: how does a rock behave under high pressure? how does a plasma behave? which informs models about planetary or stellar behavior. There’s also detailed numerical modeling, which can have problems, but also lets you try to predict (including ‘predicing’ existing data from earlier data, to test.) Economics can run from lab experiments to finding natural experiments to occasionally getting someone to give out money to a random subset of people, or such.

      “Things like marketing, parts of public health, finance are applied versions”

      I’m not sure finance in the Wall Street sense is even a good example. Applied economics includes central banks manipulating interest rates (and existing at all), auction design, explanations of price discrimination or why governments fix prices is bad, saying when markets should be left alone vs. when they need government help to work better and what that help should be, whether tariffs are a good idea, etc.

      1. Those experiments (high pressure tests for mantle/core materials, plasma experiments, etc.) I’d classify as using physics and chemistry to assist the geology and astronomy. Several fields I divide into parts based on the method used, so these experiments could also be thought of as a category 1 part of Geology, astronomy, etc.

        (Obviously, like any system for things like this, there will be exceptions, weird cases, and things that aren’t perfect,)

    2. Harvard at one time (maybe still) divided their (hard) sciences into Type A and Type B. Stephen Jay Gould complained that–of course–the experimental/mathematical sciences like physics were called “Type A” and the observational sciences like paleontology were “Type B.”

      1. Most likely I’d stick most parts in category 5. I’m not sure what positivist vs. non=positivist is (Does it mean anthropology is more exacting about results it gets, or requires different conditions for people to accept results?) just judging by how data/math are used and nothing else. Obviously another scheme would be needed to cover other differences.

        1. Sorry, didn’t see this reply until now. Positivist means practitioners are expected to directly gather data themselves, such as doing experiments, running surveys, or conducting ethnographic observation. This is as opposed to for example history, where obviously no one will ever gather data on the things they study. Anyway I think the traditional division of humanities, sciences, and social sciences works well enough for classification purposes.

    3. About your point 1:
      I can certainly confirm the disagreement relevant to my expertise between 1) and 2) (mostly from a maths vs. physics perspective):
      You have the mathematicians who view typical arguments from physics as “not rigorous”, “too much driven by intuition”, on a student level perhaps even “not really understanding the mathematical concepts and just manipulating formulas”.
      From the other side, mathematics might be viewed as “concerned with theories that don’t have any real life equivalent”, “constructing weird counter examples just for the argument’s sake” (e.g. ask a mathematician and a physisict how broadly Fubini’s theorem can be applied).

      To a lesser degree, the same differences exist even between applied and theoratical branches of mathematics.

      Disclaimer: I am a mathematician, so biased myself.

      1. Or standard modern mathematicians vs. various constructivist/intuitionist/finitist mathematicians.

        As a CS guy I lean toward “if you can’t compute it, is it even real? Does it matter?”

      2. I did notice this back in high school and college.

        Calculus class: “You can’t move around the dx variables” “You shouldn’t move the dx variable, but in this situation it works”

        Physics: “Mathmeticians say you can’t split the dx and dy, but we do it all the time and it works fine”

        (Than the math people do it a few times, so I’m actually sort of curious where the ‘can’t split” idea comes from, or when it works or doesn’t work.)

        1. Physicists typically work with much more “well behaved” functions than mathematicians.

          For instance : continuity / the lack of infinities is a given, and when it’s violated it’s (always ?) your model that is incomplete.

    4. I note that category 4 disciplines are often split into people who think they should be more like sciences, and people who think they should be more like humanities.
      I think there was a period in the middle of the last century where category 5 subjects had that debate too. I remember reading either Oakeshott or Collingwood arguing that history ought not to try to become a science as if that was a thing that needed saying.

  9. I don’t know about that 2300 years part. Aristotle was practicing political science, by Prof. Devereux’s definition (i.e., looking for generalizable conclusions), and he is not 2300 years after Herodotus.

    1. Yeah, isn’t the Kyklos basically political science? Also Thucydides talking about state motivation being driven by fear, interest, and honor, as discussed in the EU4 series. History *and* polisci.

  10. Coming from a poli sci background*, I will quibble/agree (depending on your interpretation of tone) that some of the better poli sci literature makes sure to note exceptions, usually in the scientific idiom of “avenues for future research” in its conclusions section.

    This is, by the way, one reason I so love Israel as a case study, even aside from personal ties. It tends to blow up all kinds of neat generalizations and send theorists back to the drawing board, usually producing new theories that illuminate non-Israel cases.

    * though more in the European tradition taught as “Political Economy” in the US

  11. Tried to make a thoughtful response but it got rejected twice, for some reason.
    So at this point I’ll just shrug and say (slightly tongue-in-cheek) in the spirit of the recent Europa Universalis IV articles, clearly either historians need to make political scientists their vassals, or the other way around, and they both need to team up to fight the aggressively expansionist threats from other quarters of academia, such as the glaciologists!

  12. Lol, practically everyone else leaves a scholarly comment, and I’m just here to say how cute your cat is 🤣🐱 Black cats are the best!

    1. Is said cuteness measured using an all purpose political model derived from statistical results, or from a detailed examination of historical writings on cuteness?

      1. Oh very much a detailed examination of historical writings, along with other cat-related artefacts! Old Possum’s Book, Louis Wain, the fact that Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats etc etc… But then I’m sure I read somewhere that cats have evolved to appear cute, so we look after and care for them, much like babies!

        1. Small wildcats are every bit as cute. God made cats beautiful and humans to worship them 😉

  13. One problem I’ve seen with some historians if that they do the humanies close reading and textual analysis and then just… stop…

    Of course this isn’t universal at all but I’ve seen a couple of times historians gathering up a bunch of texts on a given topic, reading them carefully in order to write about the role of what they read about played in society… but then never bothering to learn even a little bit about the nuts and bolts of the topic they’re writing about.

    Kind of like writing a history of blacksmithing by combing through texts for any mention of blacksmithing and smith guilds without even knowing that carbon is used to make steel. It’s endlessly frustrating and I’ve seen it crop up a lot. And what really gets under my skin is that I see a lot of carelessness and outright ignorance on the part of many historians on technical topics I know a lot about but since I don’t know much of anything about, say, farming and building techniques I have a hard time judging the competance of historians to talk about those and many other topics.

  14. I have a foot in both camps (degrees in history and pol sci), and I think the historians have the better of the argument. All the pol sci generalisations I can think of are so limited in time and space that the really interesting questions come down to the local history. Why does balance of power ‘work’ in post-medieval Europe and fail in China or the Islamic world? because of the structures of state legitimacy that operated within and between the European states. Do democracies fight each other? The data set is very small and covers a short period, so more useful to ask why these democracies have not (yet) fought. As with economics, the maths obscures the central foundation – that these are political (in the broadest sense) issues, and politics is about arguments and values, not numbers.

  15. I absolutely agree that we need to be cautious with the word “data”, but not because ‘data’ implies a clear truth value. Data are the things we’re given, that’s all. People work hard to make them correct, but “true” is a bridge too far. When data are used for a purpose other than the reason they were collected, which is a huge industry, it’s really easy for them to imply things that aren’t true. Data deserve as much skepticism as anything in life. As the old proverb says, “when a database is well made, everyone trusts it except its creator.”

  16. Bret, I don’t know whether you make corrections in your Fireside posts, but here are a few things I noticed while reading:

    very similar accidents of chance -> similar[insert comma] accidents
    consumed by this -> by these
    invention terminology wise). -> invention[insert comma] terminology-wise
    Unlike the segmentata, is also -> segmentata, it
    Haynes efforts … to follow … -> (complete sentence?)
    to all free person in -> persons
    Haynes is also to identify -> also able to
    are joining, reading -> joining – reading [closing dash, not comma]

  17. A lot more political science relies on using modern administrative data produced by modern states. The tricky thing there is that this data doesn’t go very far into the past, relatively speaking, before it needs a historian to mediate it or risk catastrophic mistakes of interpretation.

    One fairly straightforward example of this is a book that you’ve criticized previously on this blog, albeit not a book by a political scientist as such: in Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature,” one of the most noteworthy events in his quantitative analysis of historical human violence is the An Lushan Rebellion in 8th century Tang China. Relying on the work of amateur pop-historian and self-proclaimed “atrocitologist” Matthew White, Pinker interprets the change in the Tang population during the revolt by taking Tang census figures entirely at face value, skating blithely over any number of potential complicating factors (emigration away from Tang-controlled areas, disruptions to the Tang census-taking apparatus, etc) and naively assuming that the decrease in recorded population over the course of the revolt must have been caused largely if not exclusively by the violent deaths of tens of millions of now-uncounted individuals.

Leave a Reply