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

2014 IBDP ToK Essay

History, although often considered a human science outside of the IB, is, in the Theory of Knowledge curriculum, isolated from the other human sciences due to perceived methodological differences in the reaching of their respective conclusions. However, are the results obtained utilizing these two Areas of Knowledge really different, meaning that methodology is inherently representative of purpose? This statement would say yes, that using History one can only reach conclusions that aid understanding of the past while with the help of the human sciences (such as Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and Economics) one can reach conclusions that have the potential to fundamentally alter the decisions we continue to shape the world around us.
            Even the language used to label the two AoKs seems to be suggestive of their credibility as tools to shape the future. While the human sciences has the word "science" in it, History has the word "story", already insinuating that historical findings are far more subjective than those of the Human Scientist. Leopold Van Ranke attempted to eliminate this historical subjectivity, claiming that the study of history should include no elaboration or interpretation of facts. He said that people "have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future" when it should "merely tell how it really was." However Von Ranke was not a completely objective historian, as he was biased in the materials he had access to. He did not speak Swahili so he could not write a history of Swaziland, and, in addition, he had to choose which facts he found significant enough to write. In this ranking of importance there is certainly a degree of interpretation of facts. One could even say that objectivity is impossible in the study of history. But that does not mean history is not useful to us today.
            I would say that history is not only focused on past events, it is a study of how we should do things differently now because of what we have seen happen in the past. George Orwell said: “the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” History shapes the people we interact with today. Being a product of international schooling in Moscow, Russia and Munich, Germany, I have found this to be particularly truthful. An understanding of history is vital in understanding and interacting with my friends from all over the world. My German friends, for example, although born long after the collapse of Nazi Germany, still feel as if they cannot be truly proud of being German because of their country's past sins. It is a weight that is always with them, and thus I attempt to avoid the subject. On the other hand, my good Israeli friend, although she too was born long after the Holocaust, refuses to step foot in Germany and criticizes me heavily for living here, saying that I am receiving a "Nazi education." Knowing her people's history, I try not to take it too personally. Around my friends from former Soviet bloc states like the Czech Republic and Hungary, I cannot say anything positive about my experiences in Russia without certain backlash. Thus, personally, I turn to history to help me understand my present and determine my future actions.
            But what about the disastrous historical events that we still have problems understanding today? How are we supposed to use history as a tool to change our present when the causation and correlation of certain historical events are under debate? For instance, as an IB History student I am expected to be able to explain what caused the First World War, a question that historians have been arguing about for nearly a century. This haunting uncertainty makes the topic difficult for a student like myself, but makes it even more difficult to prevent a present situation similar to the one that that spurred such violence in 1914. Put simply, without understanding of cause it is nearly impossible to use history as a tool to change the present and future.  
            However, one could say that although both history and the human sciences can help shape the future, it is a much simpler process to use human sciences to do so because its results are considered to be more certain. The human science psychology, for instance, is used in the production of US political ads in order to sway voters in their choice of future president. Obama's campaign even hired a team of psychologists in order to make the language in his ads prompt certain emotions in the viewers, particularly those of being comfortable yet empowered. In addition, those who knocked on doors on the campaign's behalf had very specific scripts that were designed by the psychologists to appeal to the human desire to conform to the societal "norm." These tactics remind me of something head of Nazi propaganda Joseph Goebbels once said, that "it would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle." The human sciences, according to these politicians, wield great power. One might even say the human sciences can influence and at times completely change people's beliefs, especially in politics, the arena in which it could be said the most world-changing decisions are made.
            But should we make such attempts to change the world with the human sciences when, actually, many of its conclusions are uncertain? While the so-called "hard" sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology are widely believed to consist of absolute and provable facts, the conclusions of the "soft" human sciences are often considered highly speculative. And even conclusions that are portrayed as certain are at times disastrously wrong. For instance, in the 1950s and 60s the so-called "refrigerator mother" theory was widely accepted by psychologists as the cause for autism. The refrigerator mother theory claimed that lack of love and warmth in mothers caused autism-spectrum disorders in their children. Consequently, it became common to take autistic children away from their mothers and put them in institutions. As one of my sisters has been diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome, this theory could have very well changed the course of my life for the worse if the theory had not fallen out of favor. Ergo, when simplistic and inaccurate conclusions are drawn in the human sciences that do not suit the very complex nature of the human mind, and are used to shape policy, the results can be catastrophic.
            Thus, it appears that the heart of the perceived divide between history and the human sciences is methodology rather than their potential usefulness. When History was created as a subject in schools there was debate as to whether it should be considered an art or a science. Whiggish University of History determined that history was an art as it was considered to be a "continual path of progress." Historians can openly recognize and even revel in history's subjectivity. There is no one right way to interpret history and apply it to the present. In the human sciences, on the other hand, there is said to be a threshold of credulity, a certain amount of people are required to answer a survey, an experiment needs to be repeated a certain amount of times, etc. This threshold and necessity of repeatability exists in order to make certain that the results obtained are objective and thus applicable universally. In this manner the human sciences attempt to mimic the natural sciences but fail because, ultimately, both history and the human sciences are attempts to understand the human psyche, and with humans I would say nothing is simple, certain, or scientific in the least. I would claim that, when it comes down to it, both subjects are subjective; the human sciences are just more reluctant to admit it. But this subjectivity does not mean the subjects are less integral to understanding the past, present, and future. It only means that history and the human sciences are tools that must be used wisely and cautiously in the shaping of our world.
Works Cited
"George Orwell (1903-1950)." BBC News. BBC, Web. 5 Jan. 2014.
"Leopold Von Ranke." Age of the Sage. Web. 7 Jan. 2014.
Macmillan, Margaret. "The Great War's Ominous Echoes." The New York Times. The New York       Times Company, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 7 Jan. 2014.
"Propaganda in Nazi Germany." History Learning Site. Web. 05 Jan. 2014.
Riggio, Ronald E., Ph.D. "The Obama Campaign’s Secret Weapon: Psychologists."Psychology Today.   Sussex Directories, Inc., 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 7 Jan. 2014.
Simpson, David E. "History of Autism Blame." PBS. PBS, 16 July 2002. Web. 06 Jan. 2014.
"The Whig Tradition." University of Cambridge. University of Cambridge. Web. 07 Jan. 2014.