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Saturday
Feb272010

RS03 - Can History Be a Science? 

Release date: February 28, 2010


Guest, Prof. Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut, joins Massimo and Julia to discuss whether history can be studied and understood in a scientific manner. In an article in Nature (3 July 2008) on what he termed “cliodynamics,” he discusses the possibility of turning history into a science.  In it, he proposes that history,  contrary to what most historians might think -- is not just one damn thing after another, that there are regular and predictable patterns, from which we can learn and that we can predict. Of course, he is not the only scientist to have turned to history in an attempt to make that field more scientific, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse immediately come to mind. And naturally, many historians vehemently object to what they perceive as a crude scientistic attempt at interdisciplinary colonization.

Prof. Turchin is a biologist by training, with interests ranging from theoretical ecology to population biology to biostatistics. In particular, much of his work has focused on what determines population cycles, a problem to which he has applied an array of statistical and conceptual tools, including chaos theory. He has published three books on the topic: Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall (Princeton University Press, 2003), War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations (Pi Press, 2006), and Secular Cycles (co-authored with S.A. Nefedov, Princeton University Press, 2009).

Comment on the episode teaser.

Prof. Turcin's pick: Victor Lieberman's book "Strange Parallels"

Reader Comments (5)

Wonderful post... Very informational and educational as usual!

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March 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJay B.

Hello, Hari Seldon!

April 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMitchbert

Y cant I download it??


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August 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR H

I realize I am very late to the game on this one I discovered your podcast recently and I've been working through the entire set. I really enjoy them. However I did think this one was a disappointing treatment. The title "Can History Be a Science?" implies there will be debate of some sort, but what we got was pretty one sided. The only remotely critical question was Julia's on the complexity of history and historical data. The point(s) of view of the historical disciplines was not represented at all, except in caricature (most historians think history is just one damn thing after another--really?).

I am not sure which historians "vehemently object to what they perceive as a crude scientistic attempt at interdisciplinary colonization," as you you put it, but my overwhelming feeling listening to this podcast was simply "been there, done that." "Can History Be a Science?" is an old question with a *substantial* literature. Personally I am most familiar with archaeology, and this was a bruising debate within that discipline for a period of about 30-40 years, dominating the theoretical literature during that time--I think we are all exhausted now. The discipline of history also had this debate, although to a lesser extent. The "sciencing-up" of "soft" disciplines like history, anthropology, and archaeology was a pervasive academic phenomenon in the US after Sputnik. The simple fact is, we ("historians") already know this debate, backwards and forwards, to the point that, beyond the specifics of his "demographic-structural" theory, I honestly have no idea what it is Peter Turchin is bringing to the table that has not been extensively covered before.

Thanks for your work on all this. The podcast is excellent and always stimulating. Maybe this one was just a little too stimulating.

November 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarkW
Great talk guys really enjoyed it. As the saying goes, 'History Repeats Itself' might lend some direction to where Science can be useful in this endeavor ...
August 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

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