Saturday 14 September 2019

Narrative and Analysis

I have claimed and attempted to demonstrate, that wargaming, and wargame campaigns, can be thought of as narratives. That is, a wargame, or a wargame campaign is developed through telling stories. History, too, it can be argued, is about storytelling, even though a fair few historians might beg to differ, their argument being that history is not about simply what happened, as a sequence of events, but about why it happened, the analysis of events.

Many years ago a friend of mine get interested in British history in the Twentieth Century. He picked up a book about interwar British social history but really struggled with it. The reason for the struggle was that he did not, in my view at least, have much of a historical framework to hang the analysis on; the narrative, the sweep of history between the wars, was not present for him to fit the analysis into.

One of the problems with modern western culture is the overbearing respect given to science. At its worst this can blend into ‘scientism’, the view that no knowledge except scientific knowledge is worth having and everything should be reduced to scientific method, experiment or theory. Thus you get some fairly eminent people saying silly things like people’s prayers should be subject to scientific experiment, totally ignoring the fact that people’s prayer life is to do with the people and their God, not to do with changing things directly on Earth.

Of course, there are answers to the scientism challenge. The most obvious is to inquire of the scientism advocate if they can prove, scientifically and experimentally, whether their life-partner loves them. This is actually a lot harder, I submit, that proving that prayers might (or might not) work, and, of course, will require the follow-up question as to whether the life partner still loves them after the experiment has taken its course.

Without wishing to digress too far into the scientism versus the rest of life arguments, the problem with the cultural interpretation of science today is that it has such a high profile as being ‘right’, as being knowledge, that every subject wants to claim to be a science. Hence we get such things as ‘social science’, which has a method but does not do repeatable experiments, we have ‘economic science’ (also known as ‘the dismal science’) which is usually wrong and even (heaven help us!) theological science.

Historically, the widespread use of the word ‘science’ can be justified; in Medieval Latin it meant something like wisdom. But the usage of a word defines it, and the meaning is different today, if we accept that modern science means something like following a known (although hard to define) method in a fairly narrowly defined range of subjects.

All of this is, of course, a rather long-winded way of saying that ‘historical science’ is no such thing. It might have its methods, and some of the results of the sciences might be used. For example, radiocarbon dating is a fairly reliable way of finding out how old some historical stuff is. It is scientific, because the way it works is well established, and has a method which can be followed to give a result. However, it is not history, but only a foundation for history.

I work in a rather peculiar half academic and half not part of a university, and often have to warn research students about numbers. The fact is that in our culture we like numbers: they give us a sense of security, of precision, even of the truth. There are two things to say here. Firstly, that arises from our cultural view of science, but it is seldom noted that professional scientists spend huge amounts of effort in replicating their results and in estimating their errors. A number, in science, without an error, is not a number, but a hand wave.

Secondly, a number, even with an error attached to it, is still not useful without an interpretation. If I say, for example, ’35.5’, you will not know what I mean. If I say ‘The atomic number of chlorine is 35.5’, you might have a chance. Numbers need interpreting, as do historical events, even when the latter have numbers attached to them. The key is in the meaning, not in the raw data or even the output number, error range and interpretation. Context counts.

So, my friend’s experience with the social history of Britain was not his fault. The book gave insufficient context for a historical ‘beginner’. This is not to denigrate him – he is a far better mathematical physicist than I ever will be. But he did not have the historical background to tackle the book in question. The context of the reader, the historian, the wargamer, is as important as the context of the experiment, number, document that is being interrogated.

As wargamers, of course, we have a particular context, and that asks questions which history, as I have said before, cannot always (or often) answer. We seek quantitative answers where only qualitative answers may exist; indeed, often no answer can be found. My ‘refights’ of Seminaria and Cerignola are cases in point. How many French crossbowmen were there? In reality, no-one really knows. A few thousand is as close as we can get. To history, this is all that matters (if it matters at all). To a wargamer the missing numbers are vital.

That, too, is a roundabout way of arguing that history is not a science. This is, to some extent, stating the absolutely obvious, but the demands of science in our culture make the idea of a historical science strangely attractive. After all, the original academic historians in the Nineteenth Century believed that they could put history on a scientific basis. To some extent they were right – they stripped out the moral, theological and teleological aspects and focussed on what happened. But a science in the normal use of the word they could not make. We have to live with that as modern westerners, and, of course, as wargamers.


  1. Very interesting points.
    Rather than have me run off at the mouth again re. historical folklore vs historical 'faction', I would recommend Griffin and Tyrell's 'Godhead: the Brain's Big Bang'. This explores some of the overarching ideas from primitive society and civilisation, but one of the underlying themes is the poisonous underpinning of 'reductionist science' as well as religion, in terms of humanity's development. It echoes a lot of your points here.

    1. I've not read it, but it sounds a bit like Wagner and Briggs' 'The Penultimate Curiosity', which is a good book with fantastic illustrations....

    2. ...and I was so hoping that my post would be encouraging you to buy one of my recommendations. Instead, I am buying one of yours hahaha.

      (and yes, I have a book addiction, but I'm getting better).

    3. Ah. It is on my wish list, but the Estimable Mrs P and I have declared another moratorium until the backlog is cleared.

      I think I've got 8 on my prime 'to be read' pile, 10 on the secondary pile, about a dozen on the tertiary pile, two being actively read, three on the being read (honest) pile and one in my bag about to be started at lunchtime, except that I've got a working lunch....

      Do I have a problem? Can I get help?

  2. Isn't one of the problems we face today the fact there is a mistrust of science? Or that people believe that what scientists are telling them isn't science. I don't see any overbearing respect for science.

    1. I think I would slightly agree, and somewhat disagree. Primary schools, for example, seem to push science as knowledge hard. Social media, of course, has nothing true on it. There is a mistrust of all authority, of which science is perhaps the least mistrusted. Most people think climate change is happening, in spite of extremely well funded campaigns sowing mistrust, doubt and unsubstantiated counter-claims.

    2. Primary schools seem to push all subjects as hard knowledge. I don't know whether it's just too difficult to teach young kids something on the basis that what you're telling has a less than 100% chance of being correct.