What Similarities and Differences Are There Between Historical and Scientific Explanations?

Topics: Scientific method, Science, Theory Pages: 5 (1502 words) Published: April 4, 2010
It is in our human nature to explain everything. Naturally, there are many ways of knowing. Application of these, often defined by certain methodology, are frequently classified into areas of knowledge. Therefore it is natural for one to see similarities and differences within the process of attaining knowledge in different areas of knowledge. When the method forming scientific and historical models for human understanding of the world are examined, many similarities can be seen. These differences and similarities can also be seen when products of explanations are assessed. When scientific and historical explanations are compared one can see many similarities. Empirical evidence are used in both scientific and historical explanations. For example, scientists have found a viable model of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) replication through empirical evidence. In 1958, Matthew Meselsohn and Franklin Stahl devised and executed an experiment to study DNA replication1. They attached two isotopes of nitrogen to each strand of DNA to determine what proportions of the isotope were present in DNA strands after multiple replication process. They observed that after one replication of DNA, each new molecule of DNA possessed one strand with the heavy isotopes of nitrogen. This evidence showed that the replication of DNA is semiconservative – the idea of copying via template2. The use of empirical evidence helped to explain the DNA replication process, even though one could not see the actual strands of DNA replicating. Looking at historical explanations one can see similar applications of empirical evidence. For example, historians such as John Lewis Gaddis came up with theories about the cold war. From observing policies of the United States and the Soviet Union, Gaddis have formulated theories about spheres of influences, and how these spheres of influences led to rising tension between the two super powers and eventually to the cold war. One may conclude that this explanation was formed by analyzing historical evidence such as foreign policies at the time, internal documents, and general events. The process of “analyzing” these sources produce empirical evidence. The use of empirical evidence is used to explain a point in time that one cannot experience the second time.

Similarities also exist in the limitation of scientific and historical explanations. If one were to use invalid empirical data then the final conclusion would be false. For example, it is known that all matter is equally effected by gravity. Yet if one were to observe objects falling in a normal environment it would be hard pressed to come to the conclusion that all objects fall at the same rate. It is difficult for 1 Damon, Alan, Randy McGonegal, Patricia Tosto, and William Ward. Higher Level Biology. Harlow: Heinemann International, 2007. Print.

2 ibid
one to conceive that a lead ball and a feather would fall at the same rate. Naturally one would reach the conclusion that a lead ball falls faster than a feather – which is essentially false unless observed in a vacuum. Also if one were to apply laws of Newton, that are constructed by empirical data, to subatomic particles that are moving near speed of light one would reach false conclusions. This is because concepts such as gravity appear to be negligible when particles are moving at near speed of light. In history one must often rely on the use of evidence such as artifacts, eyewitness accounts, and formal documentation to gain knowledge. For example, empirical evidence such as the carved face of the Great Sphinx of Giza can provide how the creator of the statue looked like. If the creator decided to enhance the facial features of the sphinx a historian would lead to the false conclusion about the appearance of the creator.

Some key differences can be seen in historical and scientific explanations. Historical explanations are generally open for interpretation. Historical evidence may be...

Cited: Cetta, Denise S. "Cold Fusion Is Hot Again - 60 Minutes - CBS News." Breaking News Headlines:
Business, Entertainment & World News - CBS News. 19 Apr. 2009. Web. 27 Jan. 2010.
Cleland, Carol E. "Methodological and Epistemic Differences between Historical Science and
Experimental Science." Print.
Damon, Alan, Randy McGonegal, Patricia Tosto, and William Ward. Higher Level Biology. Harlow:
Heinemann International, 2007. Print.
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