Epistemic uncertainty, subjective probability, and ancient history

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Abstract

The subjective interpretation of probability—increasingly influential in other fields—makes probability a useful tool of historical analysis. It provides a framework that can accommodate the significant epistemic uncertainty involved in estimating historical quantities, especially (but not only) regarding periods for which we have limited data. Conceptualizing uncertainty in terms of probability distributions is a useful discipline because it forces historians to consider the degree of uncertainty as well as to identify a most-likely value. It becomes even more useful when multiple uncertain quantities are combined in a single analysis, a common occurrence in ancient history. Though it may appear a radical departure from current practice, it builds upon a probabilism that is already latent in historical reasoning. Most estimates of quantities in ancient history are implicit expressions of probability distributions, insofar as they represent the value judged to be most likely, given the available evidence. But the traditional point-estimate approach leaves historians’ beliefs about the likelihood of other possible values unclear or unexamined.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)91-111
JournalJournal of Interdisciplinary History
Volume50
Issue number1
Early online date23 May 2019
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019

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