"The ideas that history consists of patterns, broad sweeps, and repetitions is all nonsense," Edward M. Purcell, Gerhard Gade University Professor said yesterday. Speaking to the Hillel World Affairs Round Table, Purcell noted that the study of history has not progressed to the point where the social and physical sciences can be evaluated in the same terms.
To assume that history has a pattern would imply that future history could be predicted. The day when this will be possible is almost "indescribably remote," Purcell said. When it does come, most of our present conceptions about history's pattern will probably be proven wrong.
Law of Averages Misused
In discussing physical laws misapplied to social situations, Purcell found the Law of Averages most frequently misused. "We unconsciously apply it, if only to derive a little comfort from it. People think of it as a stabalizing force, something that evens things out in the end, when actually this is not so," he said.
"The most gross misinterpreters are sportscasters. The idea of 'being due for a hit' is completely invalid scientifically. A 200 hitter who does not get a hit in eight attempts does not have a better chance of getting a hit on his ninth, according to the Law of Averages," Purcell declared.
Another poor analogy is the application of linearity to social systems by assuming that effect is proportional to cause. It may be accurate in most of science, Purcell said, but it is "wildly untrue in human affairs. Any historical event is utterly non-linear, the result of a large number of causes." Thus, he said, you cannot assign weights to various causes.
The evidence for the non-linearity of social systems is the amount of amplification which takes place; a small perturbation or disturbance can produce results all out of proportion to the causative factor, he concluded.