It is not enough to simply know history. Knowing history simply fills your brain with a bunch of facts. If you want to do something useful with the history that you know, such as learn from it to inform your decision-making, then you have to understand that history. Learning from history and understanding history means making connections, discerning patterns, and generalizing to new situations.
Steven Pinker writes about this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature:
“Traditional history is a narrative of the past. But if we are to heed George Santayana’s advisory to remember the past so as not to repeat it, we need to discern patterns in the past, so we can know what to generalize to the predicaments of the present.”
If we want to make decisions about how to govern ourselves, about what we can expect if global warming intensifies, and about our economy, then it is helpful to look at patterns, trends, and outlier events of the past and understand them. We have to use statistics, test hypothesis against the data, analyze causal structures, and attempt to fit current situations into context using historical precedent. None of this is easy, and the science isn’t always exact, but it does help us better understand both what came before us and where we are currently. Patterns are what we learn from, and identifying real patterns rather than fluctuating noise is a complex but useful process.
Without taking the time to look at the past through a lens of data and science we leave ourselves open to misunderstandings of history. We will identify patterns that don’t actually exist, we will fail to put our current moment in the appropriate context, and we will be guessing as to what we should do next. By examining history and teasing out the patterns through statistical analysis, we hope to be able to make better decisions based on true historical precedence. We may still get things wrong, we may not use a large enough data set (or may not have a large enough dataset), we may not be able to generalize from the historical data to our present moment, but at least we are thinking carefully about what to do based on what the data of the past tells us. History is a story on its own, but with science it is a series of patterns that we can examine to better understand what has happened in the past and what may be to come in the future.