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Database of Religious History: A Statistically Analyzable Database of History

Tuesday, February 10, 2015 - 16:30
Michael Muthukrishna, Department of Psychology, UBC
Seminar
Room 4192, Earth Science Buildling, 2207 Main Mall

The idea that there may be patterns in history goes back to at least the Ancient Greeks. Looking back at the stories of their ancestors and later, written history, humans have been apt to see recurrences in the rise and fall of empires, the machinations of politics and war, and the failures and fortunes of leaders, ideas, and cultures. Thus far, these speculations have remained causal storytelling, making it difficult to determine if these patterns are a byproduct of our evolved pattern-seeking brains or true trajectories through time and space. The Database of Religious History is an ambitious effort to address these puzzles by compiling historical data in a systematic and open-access format and using formal mathematical and statistical models to extract the broad patterns. There are many challenges to designing a statistically-analyzable, human-readable, humanities database of knowledge. From a technical perspective, such a system needs to be able to handle hundreds of variables, millions of data points and potentially millions of users. From a user perspective, it needs to be (a) easy to enter data for experts from history, anthropology, and archeology, and (b) easy to search, visualize, and analyze the data for analysts from these fields, as well as psychology, evolutionary biology, statistics, and other interested fields. I’ll discuss the technical and human hurdles in creating the system, show you our design, infrastructure, and data, and explain how our team of scientists and historians build and test theories.