The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Doing Science in the Past

published May 2010
The comparative method of historical science helps to explain Haiti’s poverty
magazine cover

HISTORY IS NOT OFTEN THOUGHT OF AS A SCIENCE, but it can be if it uses the “comparative method.” Jared Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and James A. Robinson, professor of government at Harvard University, employ the method effectively in the new book they have co-edited, Natural Experiments of History. (Order the lecture on DVD. Jared Diamond lectured, based on this book, as part of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech.) In a timely study comparing Haiti with the Dominican Republic, for example, Diamond demonstrates that although both countries inhabit the same island, Hispaniola, because of geopolitical differences one ended up dirt poor while the other flourished.

Christopher Columbus’s brother Bartolomeo colonized Hispaniola in 1496 for Spain, establishing the capital at Santo Domingo on the eastern side of the island. Two centuries later, during tensions between France and Spain, the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697 granted France dominion over the western half of the island. Because France was richer than Spain at this time and slavery was an integral part of its economy, it turned western Hispaniola into a center of slave trade with staggering differences in population: about 500,000 slaves in the western side of the island as compared with only 15,000 to 30,000 slaves in the eastern side.

That difference in population pressures, along with France’s hunger to import more timber from Haiti, magnified the influence of geographic factors. Weather fronts for Hispaniola come from the east and dump rain on the Dominican side of the island, leaving the Haitian side naturally drier and with less fertile soils for agricultural productivity. Haiti’s need for farmland and timber rapidly deforested the already sparse trees on its side of the island, with disastrous consequences: soil erosion, loss of timber for building and of wood for charcoal fuel, heavier sediment loads in rivers and decreased watershed protection that reduced the potential for hydroelectric power. This negative feedback cycle of environmental degradation for Haiti set it up for squalor.

When both the Haitians and Dominicans gained their independence in the 19th century, we see other comparative differences. Haitian slave revolts were violent, and Napoleon’s draconian intervention for restoring order resulted in the Haitians distrusting Europeans and eschewing future trade and investments, imports and exports, immigration and emigration. Haitian slaves had also developed their own Creole language spoken by no one else in the world, which further isolated Haiti from cultural and economic exchanges. Collectively, those barriers meant that Haiti did not benefit from factors that typically build capital, wealth and affluence and that might have led to prosperity under independence. In contrast, Dominican independence was relatively nonviolent; the country shuttled back and forth for decades between independence and control by Spain, which in 1865 decided that it no longer wanted the territory. Throughout this period the Dominicans spoke Spanish, developed exports, traded with European countries, and attracted European investors, as well as a diverse émigré population of Germans, Italians, Lebanese and Austrians, who helped to build a vibrant economy.

Finally, even when both countries succumbed to the power of evil dictators in the mid-20th century, Rafael Trujillo’s control of the Dominican Republic involved considerable economic growth because of his desire to enrich himself personally, but his policies led to a strong export industry and imported scientists and foresters to help preserve the forests for his profiteering timber holdings. Meanwhile Haiti’s dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier did none of this and instead further isolated the Haitians from the rest of the world.

Diamond acknowledges that many other factors are involved in the long history of this island but that the comparative method, he writes, “consists of comparing— preferably quantitatively and aided by statistical analyses—different systems that are similar in many respects but that differ with respect to the factors whose influence one wishes to study.”

At the heart of all science is the isolation of a handful of powerful factors that account for the majority of the variance in what is being measured. Employing the comparative method with such natural experiments of history is no different from what sociologists and economists do in comparing natural experiments of society today. So it is time for scientists to respect history as a science and for historians to test their historical hypotheses by the comparative method and other techniques.

topics in this column: , , ,

13 Comments to “Doing Science in the Past”

  1. Rajesh Kher Says:

    Ha Now we know the Devil with whom Haitians made pact. So France and by inference all Christians including pope must be the Devil.

  2. Marc Blackburn Says:

    “So France and by inference all Christians including pope must be the Devil.”

    That conclusion puzzles me; no where in the article is religion mentioned. That’s probably because comparatively, since there would have been little difference between Spanish and French allegiance to the Pope, religion was unlikely to be a contributing factor.

  3. jim Osborne Says:

    I am all for expanding the boundaries of history to include sociology and economics and to use comparative techniques but whatever the new field of study is called it is not be called a ‘science’ as we use that term. History is at its core the study of people…their motivations, rationale’s, beliefs, opinions and the record of events. We are well familar with the psuedo-sciences, and the Skeptics society is devoted to distinguishing between the hard sciences and the myths/propaganda/falsehoods masquerading as science…why blur the lines and risk further confusion by pushing this exciting new analysis into a pure science venue?

  4. Joao Bosco Miquelao Says:

    Hiding itself , as it happenes with nations without state (like Basques and Kurds,) I wonder why Haiti didn`t lost its sovereign of a nation state.

  5. Carlos Mejia Says:

    The meaning of the opening sentence seems rather vague.

    Is Mr. Shermer saying that history could more often be thought of (by whom? scientists? historians? the public at large?) as a science if it uses the “comparative method”? Or is he saying that history that uses the “comparative method” is a science?

    If the former, what evidence can Mr. Shermer offer to verify that claim? If the latter, how is he defining “science”? And, would the use of the “comparative method” necessarily make history into a science? If so, how?

  6. P Robbie Says:

    Sometimes it doesn’t matter if it’s history or science or balderdash,if it’s interesting it’s worth reading,and this was.Must be a scientific reason for this

  7. shiranaize Says:

    Jim Osborne, why do you equate sociology to myths and falsehood? I am confused by this. I don’t think you understand the difference between quantitative and qualitative science. If you approach the study of humans only quantitatively, you would be making some big mistakes (just consider how easily surveys can become deceptive unless you use examine your terms qualitatively). It is important to understand the differences of these two approaches though, otherwise one can fall for pseudoscience just as easily.
    I think, though I do agree with Carlos Mejia that it is an ambiguous thesis at the beginning, that Shermer is suggesting that by using the comparative method, historical evidence can be given traditional scientific analysis. Shermer mentions natural experiments and hypotheses at the end of the post, which would suggest the Haiti-Dominican Republic example is something that can act as a case study or natural experiment to test a hypothesis about a historical event or human social behaviors. If done thoroughly and precisely, like Jared Diamond often seems to do, it is reminiscent of how we test theories about evolution, is it not?

  8. arjun Says:

    The confusing remark from Rajesh refers to a claim by a crazy American religious nut (Pat Robertson) who claimed Haiti’s natural disasters were brought on by a pact the people made in the past with the devil. Obviously, the reasoning expressed in the article is a much better explanation for Haiti’s woes.

  9. Heliocles Says:

    This post begins with the most blatant case of stating the obvious that I’ve read in years. I grasped “The comparative method of historical science” when I was about five, and have met few persons who deny its validity (though I hardly speak to religious or postmodern fanatics). So, a harsh climate and political oppression makes a country poorer?

    If Jared Diamond has argued against the idiots who blame Haiti’s poverty on a pact with the devil, then that is OK, but you’d hardly need to be a Harvard Professor to apply basic rules of cause and effect to history.

    I am from Sweden, and we have one word “vetenskap” (German Wissenschaft) that denotes natural science as well as history, socionomy etc. “Vetenskap” is simply the noun that goes with the verb “forska” (research). Then “vetenskap” is divided into its various sub-categories, with all their different methods. If the use of “science” for “natural science” only is really so confusing for English-speakers that many of them are amazed that history, even though it is not usually included in “science”, can be used as a scientific method to explain the present, then there is obviously something quite wrong with the English terminology in this aspect.

    But I doubt that; Michael Shermer is just trying to present standard analysis as something remarkable, perhaps because it’s done by a professor from Harvard. The rest of the post is however a good history lesson.

  10. Heliocles Says:

    Sorry, Diamond works at University of California, of course. Only his co-author is from Harvard.

  11. Anthony Stocks Says:

    It is gratifying to see some measure of recognition for the “comparative method” of history as science. However, to give credit to Diamond and his colleague for inventing the method rather gives short shrift to anthropology which was born as the “science of history” under Edward Burnett Tylor nearly 150 years ago. Diamond has been a significant in popularizing the science of anthropology with his use of Marvin Harris’ “Cultural Materialism” in “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse” and many anthropologists are at peace with his role, but Shermer’s review commits a significant scientific error in science history itself by failing to give credit to the fundamental builders of ideas.

  12. Joao Bosco Miquelao Says:

    The post on May 19th should reads as follows: Hiding itself , as it happenes with nations without state (like Basques and Kurds,) I wonder why Haiti didn`t lose its sovereign of a nation state.

  13. Joao Bosco Miquelao Says:

    The post on May 19th should reads as follows: Hiding itself , as it happens with nations without state (like Basques and Kurds,) I wonder why Haiti didn`t lose its sovereign of a nation state.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how Akismet processes your comment data.