Before the question of whether history is a science can be answered, one needs to know exactly what a science is; it’s definition. When we imagine science, most of us will immediately think of experimentation, with test tubes boiling, or mechanical objects spinning around. Although this is true, this is not all there is to science. Science is a methodical discipline of studying the phenomena of the universe and recording, measuring and analysing the data. Perhaps even producing theories before experimentation, or if experimentation is not possible. For history to be a science it must follow the methods of science. Scientific method is a method of procedure that consists of systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing and modification of hypotheses. History, however, is not systematic or methodical and can not be regarded as a discipline.
At the end of the eighteenth century there were three weaknesses in history. The first was that historians did not always use primary sources in the study of history. There was a tendency to rely on secondary sources of evidence even among some of the great historians. The second problem was where eighteenth century historians failed to see that “times change” and civilisations from different eras have different aims and expectations. The third problem was that the teaching of history was not organised in a very systematic way. The main emphasis was on Greek or Roman history, or legal history. This basically says that history used to be random and unsystematic and that now it has changed. Modern historians, however, do try and use primary sources whenever they can and they are more thorough in their work, however, the study of science can not be controlled. What this means is that whereas in science one can set up an investigation, perform a controlled experiment (where there are certain aspects that are varied or maintained), and take precise readings, in history, the results are obtained as they are found. These historical results could be documents hidden away in the basement of an old house for hundreds of years, which are then found and give a slightly different view of history to what the historians thought. These findings then have to be fitted into the timeline by the historians and could end up changing the historians’ ideas of reasons for why the events occurred. In my view this is not a systematic and methodical way of studying something, even though it is the best a historian can do.
History can come close to a science when it is looking at the natural world and its phenomena. For example, if a formal account is written about the history of volcanoes, in which a number of volcanoes’ activities are compared and analysed over the course of the last five hundred years, then this would be very close to a science as it would have to explain why and how the volcanoes erupted when they did. However, this could be seen as just the science of volcanoes as all that is really being looked at is the reasons for the eruptions. So history and science are still two different concepts.
Karl Popper said that any “positive support” for theories is both unobtainable and superfluous; all we can and need do is create theories and eliminate error – and even this is hypothetical, though often successful. Popper was in fact the first to argue that this is sufficient, although many superficial commentaries are keen to point out that other people stressed the importance of seeking refutations before Popper.
Popper challenged some of the ruling orthodoxies of philosophy: logical positivism, Marxism, determinism and linguistic philosophy. He argued that there are no subject matters but only problems and our desire to solve them. He said that scientific theories cannot be verified but only tentatively refuted, and that the best philosophy is about profound problems, not word meanings. Isaiah Berlin said (rightly) that Popper produced one of the most devastating refutations of Marxism. Popper said that this is a world where we see the give and take of debate as highly esteemed because we are all infinitely ignorant, and only differ in the little bits of knowledge that we have, so we can only get nearer to the truth with some co-operative effort.
History can not be studied in the same way as Popper’s idea of science. Theories of what took place can be made, but they cannot be eliminated through experimentation, and we are more likely to have a larger number of theories left over within history than within science.
The Marxist view of history is that the course of time follows certain rules, much like the laws that can be found in sciences such as physics. The main rule in Marxism is that the upper class will always oppress and make use of the lower classes to such an extent that the lower classes will rise up against the aristocratic classes and create a new class system where they are in the upper classes. However, this will lead them to prey on those that are less fortunate than them, or those slightly different to them. The new lower classes will then rise up and a new order is created where there are no classes. This is all supposed to happen over the course of hundreds of years. However the whole system took place in Russia in their revolution in a very short period of time. This apparently proved the Marxist view of history to be wrong. However the only thing in the theory which was seen to be wrong was the time span, but in science the amount of time a chemical reaction, for example, takes for completion is never the same each time the experiment is conducted. Historic theories on the other hand always involve an average period of time. But what Marxism didn’t take into account was any other factors. Whether the lower classes would rebel or not depends on the amount of oppression, and on how influential those wishing to cause an insurrection were. This leads to the major difference between history and science.
History must be taken as it is to be investigated. All the factors leading up to an event must be looked at and taken into account, and because there is no reference (a similar event without any of the same factors leading up to it) the effect of these factors can not truly be known. In the sciences however, an experiment can be carried out again and again, and the factors involved can be varied to give slightly different results. From this the effect of each of these factors can be found and analysed. There is no controlling the way society changes or is changed over time as experiments can not be done on society to see if the results conform to what happened in history.
So my opinion is that history and science are two separate entities that can only become one when involved in the “history of science”, because in the history of science ideas of how certain people came up with scientific ideas can be discussed.