Monday, March 26, 2012


 This post will also be found in Tehachapi's The Loop Newspaper

Things have been happening here on Earth for around four billion years. Most of the things that have happened during that time were unobserved. And for most of the things that have happened that have been observed, no one has bothered to note them down.

But even with observation we can't be guaranteed that what gets written done is what really happened. There is the famous psychology experiment where students are watching some activity on a screen, such as people passing a basketball around. The students are asked to focus on one aspect of the action, such as the number of passes of the ball. Then in the middle of the film a person in a gorilla suit comes in and does something then goes off the screen. Typically at least half of the students never see the gorilla.

I always figured that I would have spotted the gorilla, but a few months ago there was a show on one of the science type channels where they did a very similar experiment with the audience. I never saw the guy in the penguin suit walk across the stage. So despite my conviction that I'd do better (I did on some of the other experiments on the show) I was not a good eyewitness. 

So when we focus on one thing we can easily lose sight of all manner of other things. And all too often history has had a very limited focus. The activities of great men. And it was mostly men. But the vast majority of what goes on in any time are things that were never recorded.

Someone may have written down what was served at some feast, but we'll never know what happened among the cooks who prepared it. But using science, like archeology, covering even recent periods we can learn more about how people lived. We can combine the things we have recorded with observations of artifacts so we can have a better idea of what really did happen. 

And many of our sciences are historical. Meaning that we apply methods from science to study things that weren't actually observed. Astronomy is a “historical” science. Paleontology, geography, evolutionary biology and climatology are also. Some may claim that these aren't as good a kind of science as the experimental kind, where you make hypotheses and test them in the lab.

But these “historical” sciences are still based on hypotheses and testing. We just have to go out and find observations that agree or disagree with what we've hypothesized. And if the new observations are not consistent we must give up our hypothesis. 

But for many a hypothesis is a very hard thing to let go of. And these hypotheses can create the kind of focus that makes it so easy to miss the guy in the six foot tall penguin suit marching past us. But that's a place that other people can help us out. When you discuss your hypotheses with others, somebody is going to notice the penguin. Then we can start to come to grips with what is really historical.

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