Historians extensively studied the scientific revolution, but why could they not apply these insights to their own discipline?

Isaac's Apple

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) studied the force of gravity. Understanding the law of gravity allows us to build spectaculair architectural structures and fly to the moon (and back). It is about time historians and international relations theorist also adopt a more scientific method, and new (and spectaculair) possibilities will present themselves.

Why were historians and international relations theorists not able to identify the patterns in war dynamics, I present and discuss in my research?

Despite numerous efforts of historians and international relations theorists, they were not able to identify various closely related regularities in the war dynamics of the System. Not only are these patterns consistent with physical laws that (obviously) also apply to social systems, they make also a lot of (common) sense.

The following factors contribute to this shortcoming, and the lack of progress that is made in our understanding of the dynamics and development of the System:

(1) Historians and international relations theorists typically focus on ‘isolated’ events. Instead of focusing on the long-term and making use of data, historians focus on isolated events and typically prefer to use a narrative – descriptive – approach to make sense of these events. This makes (sometimes) for good reading, but often does not qualify as a scientific method.

(2) Historians and international relations theorists have difficulty in accepting that physical laws also apply to social systems and their dynamics. Historians and international relations theorists overstate the existence of free-will, and assume that humans are highly ‘autonomous’ in their choices. My research shows that our ‘will’ is not as free as we want to believe, and that it is our ability for (collective) self-deception that distinguishes us from other species.

(3) The fact that we (humans) are integral parts of the System we try to understand, complicates our interpretation of observations, and objectivity.

(4) Historians and international relations theorists prefer to stay in their comfort zone. Historians and international relations theorists lack a scientific and innovative approach to the study of historical events and processes. Contrary to (other) scientific disciplines, historians and international relations theorists stick to their narrative approach, that is their comfort zone. Until now, historical research methods are still based on ancient and outdated ideas: No significant progress has been made in that respect. The scientific revolution – although extensively described and studied by historians – has passed historians and international relations theorists, and has not penetrated their own discipline.

Complexity and network science, theoretical physics, and ecosystem research – for example – have much to contribute to our understanding of social and historical dynamics. Why should physical laws – for example the entropy law – apply to ecosystems, and not to social systems? Humans are also not exempted from the law of gravity.

(5) Historians and international relations theorists use ‘man-made’ units of analysis to analyze war data and simply ignore (even the possibility of) the existence of natural cycles (that are the outcome of natural and physical laws), which should be used as units of analysis. Typically, historians use periods of fifty years or centuries as units of analysis for their study of war data. Historians and international relations theorists have ignored the possibility that these man-made units of analysis do not apply, and consequently distort their research results. The research shows that the System used four accelerating war cycles, that should be used to further analyze the dynamics and development of the System.

pnas-fig-2

This figure shows the remarkable regularities that can be identified when four war cycles the System produced during the period 1495-1945 are used as the (logical) units of analysis (wardata from Levy). These patterns – as well as a distortion in the life span of the second relatively stable period – are very consistent and can be explained by physical laws that apply to the System.

Pinker, 5 14Duration of wars involving the great powers, 1500–2000 (sourcesBecause the data are aggregated over 25-year periods, it is impossible to fathom the dynamics of the System

 

(5) Because historians and international relations theorists are not aware of the impact of physical laws on the war dynamics of the System – and how these laws determine and shape these dynamics – they only focus on highly contingent aspects of these dynamics. Historians and international relations theorists are not aware of (what I call) an underlying deterministic domain; the highly consistent nature of war dynamics – and the direction of development of the System – are not recognized and thus ignored.

Full understanding of the dynamics of the System requires that the contingent domain (historians and international relations theorists unknowingly focus on) and the impact of the deterministic domain are both taken into consideration, as well as the interactions between both domains.

From a contingent perspective, each war is (to a high degree) a contingent and unique event (the issues that are at stake, etc.) but from a deterministic perspective it is not: Wars are regular energy releases that are used to maintain a certain balance in the System in case of non-systemic wars, or to upgrade (reorganize) the order of the System in case of systemic wars. Wars are examples of (very regular) system-behavior, that obey simple physical laws. We are not exempted from these laws, historians want us to believe.

If the current level of understanding of historians and of international relations theorists of their discipline would be applied to other natural phenomena, they – not being aware of the law of gravity – would interpret each apple that falls from a tree as an unique and even surprising event, and very creatively attribute all kind of circumstances to this ‘event’ from taking place.

It is time for a scientific approach to the study of historical processes and international relations. Effective methods can – and must – now be developed to prevent war and better manage the (development) of the System toward a sustainable future.