Note to readers: This post began as my Sunday Essay post, but I ended up rewriting it entirely. So now its both Sunday Essay and Monday Forum!Recently on this blog we have been talking about evidence based approaches. In a postscript on
The application of evidence based approaches 2 - A note on evidence based policy, I referenced an article that came via Club Troppos' Nicholas Gruen: The Trouble With Scientists. I have been musing on that and, more broadly, the issues raised by my regular commenters on evidence based approaches.
I suppose that I could put the questions in my mind this way: how do we know what we we know, how do we know that we are right, how do we test that we are right, how do we correct when we are wrong?
By training I am both an historian and economist. Let me start with the history part in this post.
As an historian, I try to discover and tell the story of things that I am interested in. This involves analysis of evidence, the development of patterns and relationships that I can express mainly in writing for myself and the reader.
As an historian, I have always been uncomfortable with the thesis or hypothesis approach where that is defined first and then tested against the evidence. I am a curious person, I want to know what happened, why it happened, not prove a particular point. So I ask questions of the evidence. What happened? Why did it happen? What was connected? The idea that I must start with something that I want to "prove" or "test" or even that I must start with a single question makes me quite uncomfortable.
In working, I am always conscious of the problems of selection, perception and bias. This affects the questions I ask, the evidence I select and, to a degree, the way I approach the evidence. Working my way through, I work out the story that best represents the evidence as I see it. But am I right?
There are simple things that I can do to test my work. I don't especially want to refute my own work, but I do apply certain simple tests that I have learned from experience are important.
The first is simply a date check. This may sound quite self-evident, but if a follows b, then it's sensible to check the dates of a and b. I said that date checking may sound self-evident, but we live in a world in which the idea of dates in history is sometimes treated in a rather cavalier fashion. You have to do it though. I still remember my total embarrassment a few years back when a simple later date check forced me to put a line through a total line of argument that I actually thought was rather good. I still blush.
The second linked thought is to look at time linkages. Again, this seems self evident; a may follow b, but is there enough passage of time to make any connection between a and b? This is especially important if you are arguing causation rather then connection. Sometimes, a specific focus on time delivers apparently unbelievable results.
This is true of both the establishment of the Armidale Teachers' College and New England University College. I was very suspicious of some of the dates, I just thought they couldn't be right, but when I checked I suddenly thought how the bloody hell did you do that, it couldn't be done today. Our systems wouldn't allow it. The speed of action had suddenly became part of the story itself.
The third test is simply geography. This is a quite remarkable one that I was unconscious of for a very long while even though I was interested in geography. At the simplest level, it's just this.Get out a map. Look. Think about climate. Look. What does it all mean for your story?
Let me give you an example. Those on the first fleet almost starved after arriving at Sydney. All the early explanations focused on things like lack of skills or equipment or the convict system. The reality, it seems, was that there was a drought, an El Nino event. Now the climate knowledge came later, but the drought stuff could, I suspect, have been picked up from the records if one had asked the right questions.
No matter how well I analyse the evidence, I know that my first pass description is my hypothesis, a story based on evidence for later checking and refutation.
Those who wish to test my conclusions, the story I have told, may use the same evidence but operate in in a different way. They may test my story for internal inconsistency. Do the bits hang together? They may ask different questions of the same evidence, coming at the same pattern from a different angle. More often, they will find new evidence that challenges my view, leading to a new position. .
Sometimes, one can be very lucky. History builds on itself. I am still a bit staggered that some of the conclusions I drew in my history honours thesis, I was only 21, actually went on to form key building blocks in later analysis by people of far greater academic stature than me. My thesis wasn't especially well received at the time, .it got me a 2-2, but it has survived to the point that I am now using it and the subsequent discussion including opposition to create an entirely new hypothesis that can, in turn, be tested.
Quite remarkably, really! Bu that's what the study of history is about.
Later, I will extend this discussion by looking at economics.