History as a Precise Science

On a number of occasions Altshuller claimed that history is more precise a science than physics, chemistry or biology. "How much do they know about the nature ?" - he asked, - "10%, 5%, 1%, or even less ? But history knows about what has happened almost everything. At least the percentage is much higher. The chronology of historical events is mostly known to us."

As usual his extravagant statements were not intended to be taken at the face value but to reveal a paradox. Precise sciences started when the scientific method of antiquity was inverted. In antiquity philosophers were primarily preoccupied with explanation of phenomena rather than with first investigating what happens and how in detail because the latter was much more difficult than inventing various explanations. Galilei was probably the first to invert this process. He started to thoroughly study what happens before proceeding to explanation. This significantly reduced the number of possible theories.

In history, conversely, the sequence of events in most cases is not difficult to establish and known precisely. Yet it does not reduce the number of possible explanations. Moreover the more we know about history, the more explanations spring out. The real causes of historical events are difficult to infer from their sequence.

Consider, for example, explanation of the acceleration of Altshuller's work on TRIZ beginning 1965. The causes obviously lie in the previous events. But which ones ? There were many historical events in 1965:

One of the "historians", Leonid Shub, believes that event #1 on the above list, joining the Paris convention by the Soviet Union, caused Altshuller to significantly expand contradiction matrix in 1965 [1]. In Shub's opinion Altshuller did it because he realized that "joining the convention would result in inflow of foreign patents into USSR and the Soviet scientific and engineering ingenuity would have to compete with the best foreign achivements". "Competition with the best foreign achievements ought to be started being well armed," - writes Shub, - "the stellar hour of contradiction matrix has began."

What evidence does Shub have to support his theory ? Nothing except that matrix was expanded after Soviet Union joined the convention. In other words, post hoc ergo propter hoc.

In reality, it was the clamp down on science fiction literature that caused Altshuller to devote more time to TRIZ. As a result of the clamp down he could not make living from science fiction anymore and decided to diversify into TRIZ hoping to make living from it. How do I know that ? Altshuller himself told me it in a private conversation. But how could an independent historian know about that ? He could assume that Altshuller indeed was inspired by Leonov's space walk or was driven by joining the Paris convention, as Shub did.

But could revelations of history actors on the causes of their actions be always trusted ? Alan Greenspan in a recent interview [2] told that he kept lowering interest rates in 2002 in order to stave off deflation. Actually it was the official position of the Fed back then. But anyone with good memory could recall that all rate cuts were preceded by cries of investors and pleads to cut rates in hope that it would stop the slide of the stock market. This also can be gleaned from newspapers of those days. But such a motivation could not be put into the foundation of the Fed's decisions because its primary mandate is prices stability. That is why another motivation, the threat of deflation, was invented to justify rate cuts.

Similarly what was the cause of the recent housing bubble ? The low interest rates or something else ? As everybody knows the lax lending policies and ARMs were the culprit rather than low interest rates. But now people started blaming Greenspan for causing the bubble by lowering interest rates. Had lenders not given loans to people with poor credit and had they not enticed people into taking ARMs, no interest rate, low as it might be, would have caused the bubble.

In a precise science we first establish what happens and then why. In history the first part is easy. But for some reason it does not make the second part any easier.