Aydin Örstan told “A tale of universal parsimony.” He ends his tale,
Mejzlik would have approved of Atkins’ method. However, although Mejzlik solved Divisek’s mystery, Čapek hints at the end of his tale that the duo hadn’t followed “proper scholarly methodology”. Perhaps, what they lacked was sufficient data. Then again, scientists trying to explain historical events rarely ever have enough information, but must often rely on statistical reasoning. It seems that we can not be sure of the causations of even the simplest happenings.
You can read Aydin’s post to find out who Mejzlik, Atkins and Čapek are and, more importantly, the place of parsimony in all research worthy of the name. But let me say two things about history and statistical reasoning.
First, the answers to all the abnormally interesting questions in history are “underdetermined; they “lack sufficient data.” “Statistical reasoning” provides a way to overcome this problem. This statistical reasoning may be quite formal but is more often informal. When we “weigh the evidence,” we are engaging in informal statistical reasoning. Such informal statistical reasoning is fraught with problems made worse by the fact that most historians have no formal training in the mathematics of statistics or probability. Without such formal training, historians lack intuitions that might better control what are, no matter how informally reasoned or stated, in the end matters of statistics and probability. I know I’m conflating statistics and probability but they are near relatives.
Second, on Sunday Shirley and I heard Jared Diamond pitch Natural Experiments of History, the new book he co-edited with James A. Robinson. In the course of his lecture, Diamond bemoaned the fact that historians are not taught statistics, that they even eschew it. Diamond is right and historians are wrong to avoid formal training in statistics and probability.