Re[2]: Warms, Yee, and LOPO (anti-POMO)

Danny Yee (danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Tue, 17 Oct 1995 11:43:24 +1000

Bob Graber accidentally sent this to me personally, and has asked me to
forward it to the list. (You can expect a follow-up from me sometime!)

Danny Yee.

from Bob Graber

Before our topic grows colder, I would like to respond to D. Yee's query

>Do you think that attempting to answer questions such as "Why did Rome
>defeat Carthage?" is a worthwhile enterprise? (I'll leave aside the
>question of whether it is "science" or not -- it is clearly an intellectual
>undertaking in which logic, empirical evidence, and hypothesis formation
>and testing are involved.) I'll assume you do, for the moment.

History is accomplished at describing the past, but no good at all at
explaining it. Here is how we can take stock of history's scientific
credentials. Science is the process, and products, of an ongoing
interaction between evidence and reason; its products, or "accounts,"
can be divided into descriptions and explanations. The really good
explanations--the only accounts really deserving that name, I would say-
are of the deductive-nomological sort; that is, they subsume specific
phenomena under unfalsified lawlike generalizations. Now, historians
often manifest an ongoing interaction between reason and evidence; to
that extent the process is scientific. And, they have produced some
apparently excellent descriptions of past phenomena. Yet we might just
as well admit, I think, that they have explained nothing,nothing at all.
If they are ever going to explain Rome's defeat of Carthage, they are
going to have to formulate some unfalsified general laws about how the
outcomes of wars are determined. Without such laws, there is no point
about deluding themselves, or the rest of us, that they have explained
anything. Sociologists and anthropologists have a few ideas that can
serve to anchor explanations related to warfare. Here is an example.
Why did the civil liberties of U.S. citizens take such a beating in the
1940s and 1950s? Probably because societies engaged in external conflic
experience culture change toward deemphasizing individual rights of
their own members. This lawlike generalization, and the circumstances
of U.S. involvement in World War II and its aftermath (the Cold War),
explain the apparently exceptionally low regard, in that period, for
the individual rights of citizens. This lawlike generalization was
explained long ago by Herbert Spencer in *Principles of Sociology*.
True, this does not explain specific things that happened then, such
as the concentration camps for Japanese Americans, or the McCarthy
witchhunts--at least not in their details; still, it is this kind of
progress toward deductive-nomological explanation that gives
anthropology and sociology a claim to higher scientific status than
that of history. --Bob Graber