Our certainty surrounding knowledge claims or truths differs greatly across different areas of knowledge. Certainty can mean different things – especially in subjects which are so very different in the methodology and approaches to determining the truth – such as the natural sciences and history.
In the natural sciences, our methodology of distinguishing certainty creates two categories: scientific theory; and scientific law. Theories are much more about explaining what we observe – for example; the theory of evolution. This is not something we are certain is true; rather, simply an idea that explains what we are certain of: that we are very different biologically to our great ancestors. This theory is commonly accepted as true – and will be, until proven wrong. Another example of this happening in history is Aristotle’s theory of gravity – that objects feel a gravitational force in proportion to their relative mass. Everyone believed this was true (or certain) – until a little insignificant guy called Galileo came and proved it wrong. Thus; we learned that scientific laws (certainties) can only explain observations. Whereas we can be certain that energy is equal to the mass times the speed of light squared (more commonly known as e=mc2) and that energy is interchangeable with mass, we are not sure why – and we can never be completely sure. Having said that, however, there are some things we are more certain of than others. We are pretty certain that the dinosaurs went extinct from a meteor – but there has been speculation and controversy surrounding how certain we really are. Despite this, the general consensus is that it is the single contributing factor. Equally, we are less sure why our universe was created or why the Big Bang happened (again, we aren’t even sure it did. Just look at religion!) than we are about why the dinosaurs went extinct. Whereas all these examples fall under the category of the natural sciences, they also cross the threshold into ‘history’ as an area of knowledge and how certain we can be of events in the past, demonstrating some similarities between these two areas.
As we’ve seen, there are a few parallels between history and the natural sciences. In history, we do not have laws and theories, but rather we have facts and interpretations. For example; it is a historical fact that World War 1 happened. The difference between scientific theory and interpretation comes in when you begin to ask why. In history, lots of arguments/explanations of why something happened are equally as valid. Following our prior example, one historian might passionately argue that it was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand which triggered World War 1 – and have plenty of evidence to support this claim; and another historian might argue that it was the rise of nationalism that is most significant in contributing to the outbreak of war. Part of what differentiates history from natural sciences is again that two arguments can be right that also directly contradict each other because human nature is a lot more nuanced. Two things can be significant in history. Significance in causes is quite different from explanations for patterns and observations. In history, hypotheticals are easy to think about when determining certainty: for example, how certain are we that WW1 would have still happened without Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination? However, this approach to testing knowledge is rather redundant as (guess what) replicating or testing out this theory is near impossible – whereas, in natural sciences, a major source for validity is the ability to replicate the experiment and get the same conclusion. In history, we can believe things played a role in others but the nuance of human nature means it is rather inconsistent and we truly can never be sure of WHY – similar to natural sciences.
However – another difference can come in the difference between historical fact and scientific law. As mentioned above, it is a law that e = mc2 in a vacuum. This is simply something that is always proven to be true. But in history it is perfectly possible that things happened – ie were a fact – that we have no idea about. And we never will. In science, things can be proven NOW in modern times but in history, all our knowledge and certainty is based in the past. For example; the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. We are sure that it happened – but the factual details (ie a concrete statistic that has no contention (even though statistics can be biased but we will not get into that now)) still remain a mystery. The Chinese government reported about 200 deaths – whereas internationally it is estimated to be around 10,000 deaths. The general consensus is still greatly debated.
As we can see, there are many differences in the certainty regarding knowledge claims or truths in the different areas of knowledge.