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“the Historians Task Is to Understand the Past; the Human Scientist, by Contrast Looking to Change the Future.” to What Extent Is This True in These Areas of Is Knowledge?

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5. “The historians task is to understand the past; the human scientist, by contrast looking to change the future.” To what extent is this true in these areas of is knowledge?                                                 

Word Count: 1206

When talking about the tasks of a historian and a human scientist, the public is generally of an opinion that a historian’s task indeed is to understand the past, but that of a human scientist is to understand the present. In my opinion, a human scientist such as a geographer, or an economist is in fact looking to change the future, however, I believe that it is not possible to do so in a reasonable way due to the justified opinions that this paper supports. A historian, on the other hand, is using the knowledge of the past in order to interpret the present, and hence to prognosticate the further advancement of the society. This was seen on multiple occasions in the past, when historians used the available historical evidence to understand the present, and to anticipate the further development of humanity.

When acknowledging human sciences predicting the future, one has to consider the renowned Black Swan Theory, created by the American-Lebanese economist and trader, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his work, Taleb argues that it is impossible to create a reliable prediction of any event happening. The Black Swan Theory proposes an idea that all breakthroughs that have happened throughout the history of the world, such as the invention of penicillin, anesthesia and Teflon, and had an immense impact on humanity, happened on accident. As one may know, the aforementioned inventions were in fact created under the circumstances beyond one’s control. [1] Taleb describes such events using the analogy of the so-called “black swan problem” (hence the name of the theory). In his works, he says that, “the reason free markets work is because they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error, not by giving rewards or 'incentives' for skill". He elaborates on that statement by saying that, “The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as possible.” [2]

In order to further expand on the idea, presented by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and the possibility of future prediction, it is necessary to take into account the well-known Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne effect was established during the Hawthorne Experiment, carried out by Henry A. Landsberger during the earlier half of the 20th century. This experiment showed that the test subjects, knowing that they were being observed by a group of scientists, have changed their behavioural patterns, causing a systematic error in the results of the experiment. [3] Therefore, the Hawthorne Effect suggests that a scientist changes the system, simply by observing it, meaning that it is essentially impossible to make any accurate observations, which can then be used to make true predictions.

This is, however, not how the economists, or other human scientists see the world; they confidently believe that their predictions are meaningful. [4] The vast majority of all the reports ever produced by human scientists do not mention the possibility of the occurrence of a so-called Black Swan, meaning that the hazard of a highly improbable event, which can have a significant negative impact on, for example, the stock market, thus making the prediction moot, is disregarded. There are, however, papers, that take the Black Swans into account. For instance, the Cebr’s World Economic League Table advices “the users of this information to interpret the predictions with caution”, because one of the three criteria (i.e. GDP growth, inflation growth, and the currency growth) used in the forecast can “have a way of fairly wildly defying forecasters’ predictions.” [5] This means that the creators of the Cebr World Economic League Table are implicitly stating that, although there is a solid mathematical foundation to their research, the results should not be taken as the ultimate truth.

 When looking at the Black Swan Theory and the Hawthorne Effect together, a counterargument arises being that human scientists are, in a way, historians, rather than future-changers. For instance, when the naturally preserved mummy of Ötzi the Iceman was found in September 1991 in Ötztal Alps, hence Ötzi, it was a breakthrough discovery by the anthropologists. Since the discovery of Ötzi has helped us to expand our knowledge about the time period of around 3,300 BCE, it is possible to argue that in that particular instance, anthropologists were being historians, attempting to understand the past. [6]

However, when discussing the understanding of the past, the following question arises: does everybody understand a piece of historical evidence in the same way? Nevertheless, it is important not to fall into the temptation of stating that all history is biased, because of the famous quote “history is written by the victor”. Although there were cases, where biased historical evidence was used in an analysis, generally, in order for a source to be considered credible by a historian, it has to be analyzed using the OPVL technique. OPVL, or the Origin Purpose Value Limitation analysis ensures the extent to which a source can be considered credible and unbiased.

As stated in the introduction to this essay, I believe that a historian’s task is to understand the present, using the knowledge of the past. For instance, the Treaty of Versailles, signed on the 28th of June 1919, which was used in order to punish Germany for its actions during the World War I, was a tool utilized by historians, both then and now, to understand the present, and to anticipate the further development of the conflict.

The aforementioned Hawthorne Experiment was carried out in the late 1920s, almost in parallel to the events that have happened in Europe between the Treaty of Versailles and the beginning of World War II. I believe that it is possible to relate those events back to both the Hawthorne Effect and the Black Swan Theory, as the historians have attempted to predict Hitler’s next step, based off of the regulations of the Treaty of Versailles. However, it is known that most of them were wrong, due to the high unpredictability of Hitler’s actions, described by the Black Swan Theory, leaving the world unprepared for Hitler’s strike, which has led to a long and a devastating war, costing millions of people their lives across the world.

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