Applied Definition Debates: How History and Politics are Both Science and Not Science

Follow up to: The “Why Do We Care?” Test

One time, I encountered one of my friends. Let’s call him Larry. Larry insists to me the following: “History is a science.”

Another one of my friends, Iggy, insists something quite different: “Political science is not a science.”

What could they be talking about? I think what’s going on here is a debate over definitions; what the word “science” should refer to, rather than facts about the quality of either field. I have to say that both Iggy and Larry are correct in part and wrong in part. But how could this be so?

For the answer, let’s dive into how I resolve definition debates.


Debating Definitions

Generally, I have seen debating definitions to be a folly:

In any debate where definitions are of importance, we can figure out a definition that’s (1) practical, (2) sensical, (3) not circular, and (4) not vague[...] Then, and then agree to that definition and stick with it [and] can resolve the question by looking at the facts of the world. Perhaps we were in agreement the whole time, but we were just muddled by our use of language and assumptions about what the other person meant by what he said. But no longer! Debate resolved, or rather, dissolved!

Let’s look at this with an example. As the frequently used parable goes, imagine Alice asks “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. Bob replies that it does not, because sounds are auditory experiences in the brain and no brains were around to have those experiences. Carol replies that yes, it does, because sounds are acoustic vibrations and such vibrations were produced.

I cut through their debate, notice they all agree on all relevant facts, and should just stipulate what they mean and go forward. There is no One True Definition of Sound; either one should work.


Definitions Can Be Contested

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everything — there are certainly times when we’re permitted to contest a definition. Imagine if David walked into this situation and argued that both Bob and Carol were wrong. According to David, the tree does not produce any “sound” because when he says “sound” he is referring to what we normally call “lemonade”, and obviously trees don’t produce lemonade when they fall.

We’re right to laugh David out of the room.

And we can do so even for some less obvious cases. As I’ve argued in “Birds Are Dinosaurs, But Pluto Isn’t a Planet”, if David says, “Pluto is a planet and by planet I mean to refer to the pre-2006 definition“, then David is technically correct, but it would still be too confusing to call Pluto a planet because we’ve all agreed to standardize on the post-2006 definition, and anything else is needlessly confusing.

Additionally and more surprisingly, David would be wrong for similar reasons to say “Birds are not dinosaurs”, because, well it turns out they are. Any different definition of “dinosaur” would be one different from the one we’ve standardized on and thus be needlessly confusing.


A Consensus of the Dictionaries and Two Definitions of Science

Let’s flashback a bit to Bob and Carol. Why can’t one of them shout, “My definition of sound is the correct one because it’s the one we’ve standardized on, and your definition is needlessly confusing!”? The reason is that we haven’t actually standardized on one definition of sound. Indeed, dictionary battle lines have been drawn — Merriam-Webster and The Cambridge Dictionary prefer the “experiences” version. Google prefers the “vibrations” version. Both and Wiktionary is split on both. Such a split is not reflected on “planet” or “dinosaur”.

But what then about our fair science? Do we have a consensus of the dictionaries?


The answer is no.

Instead, we seem split between one generic definition, which says science is “a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study” and another definition grounded in the scientific method, which says science is “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation”. The first one, the generic definition, is upheld by Google. The scientific method definition is upheld by Cambridge Dictionary. Wiktionary,, and Merriam-Webster all state both.


From here, it’s rather straight forward. Clearly, both history and politics are “systemized knowledge” and meet the generic definition. However, all of history and many parts of political science do not rely on experimentation or the scientific method. (The part of political science I do, political psychology, actually does rely on the scientific method and is science by either definition. Other parts, like foreign policy, international relations, constitutional law, and even political philosophy, do not.)

Thus the debate is dissolved. Depending on which definition you use, history and political science either is a science or isn’t a science. Or rather, history and political science are sciencesystemized knowledge but are often not sciencescientific method. I think something like library science and astronomy would also fit in this club of things commonly considered “science” that don’t use the scientific method.

Until such a time comes when we standardize upon a definition, people should be extra clear to say what they mean by “science” and we’ll be good.


Science and the “Why Do We Care?” Test

I suppose there’s a bit more that can be said though. Let’s take “science” through another technique, the “Why Do We Care?” test:

I propose a bold test for unraveling both the definition of person and the reason why we haven’t figured out the definition yet: asking why we care. [For example, why do we care about what a person is?] Well, the answer is that the notion of personhood confers moral rights — people are the kind of things that we ought to treat with a specific kind of behavior — a high degree of respect, compassion, and empathy. People are the kind of things that we tend to cherish highly, far more than anything else. [...]

If what really matters about personhood is that it is an entity deserving of a specific treatment, why not forgo the physical definitions that have been tried and failed for thousands of years, and instead go after the behavioral response / moral definition: define a person as any entity or thing that deserves to be treated by a certain set of characteristics (with specific and guaranteed rights, with respect for their autonomy and freedom, with full compassion when possible, among other things), and work from there. [...]

Only if you know why you care about the words you say can you truly make sure you understand the words you are saying and the meaning you are communicating, and to bring the two more in line with the meaning you actually intend to and desire to communicate. [...] So when you see a word that seems important yet regularly eludes definition, try asking why we care and work backwards to a definition.


Perhaps we can apply this test to “science”. The anxiety about what gets qualified as “science” or “not science” is very closely related to the legitimacy of the field. Fields that aren’t science can be dismissed as unreliable and uselessly subjective. But history and political science are both reliable, and therefore shouldn’t be at risk.

Another confusion, however, is that biology or mathematics gets to claim greater certainty. But this certainty is not a proxy for reliability. As long as one can manage (and even quantify) their uncertainty, political science and history can make claims with less certainty but still through very reliable methods.

I think the scientific method is more reliable than the historical method. But not by all that much. I’d be willing to put various sciences on a gradient with mathematics on top and things like literary analysis closer to the bottom.

So yes, Larry, history can be a sciencesystemized knowledge. But surely you agree it doesn’t use the scientific method, and thus is not a sciencescientific method. That doesn’t make history inferior or unreliable by any means, or even all that uncertain. After all, we all agree that Barack Obama was elected President and this is historical fact is perhaps far more certain than theories about black holes.


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On 18 Feb 2013 in All, Words. No Comments.

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