One of the great myths often invoked in debate, political or otherwise, is the objective, undisputed truth of so-called “history.” In reality, history is the result of a certain competition in interpretation of events, where interpretations themselves are impacted by biases and ideological underpinnings.
Here are a few paragraphs from Expert Political Judgment, University of Pennsylvania political science professor Phil Tetlock’s book on political forecasting, that take this skeptical approach to historical learning farther than most.
Learning from the past is hard, in part, because history is a terrible teacher. By the generous standards of the laboratory sciences, Clio is stingy in her feedback: she never gives us the exact comparison cases we need to determine causality (those are cordoned off in the what-iffy realm of counterfactuals), and she often begrudges us even the roughly comparable real-world cases that we need to make educated guesses. The control groups “exist” – if that is the right word – only in the imaginations of observers, who must guess how history would have unfolded if, say, Churchill rather than Chamberlain had been prime minister during the Munich crisis of 1938 (could we have averted World War II?) or if, say, the United States had moved more aggressively against the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (could we have triggered World War III?).
But we, the pupils, should not escape all blame. A warehouse of experimental evidence now attests to our cognitive shortcomings: our willingness to jump the inferential gun, to be too quick to draw strong conclusions from ambiguous evidence, and to be too slow to change our minds as disconfirming observations trickle in. A balanced apportionment of blame should acknowledge that learning is hard because even seasoned professionals are ill-equipped to cope with the complexity, ambiguity, and dissonance inherent in assessing causation in history. Life throws up a lot of puzzling events that thoughtful observers feel impelled to explain because the policy stakes are so high. However, just because we want an explanation does not mean that one is within reach. To achieve explanatory closure in history, observers must fill in the missing counterfactual comparison scenarios with elaborate stories grounded in their deepest assumptions about how the world works.
& P. 161
This chapter underscores the power of our preconceptions to shape our view of reality. To the previous list of judgmental shortcomings — overconfidence, hindsight bias, belief underadjustment — we could add fresh failings: a) the alacrity with which we fill in the missing control conditions of history with agreeable scenarios and with which we reject dissonant scenarios; (b) the sluggishness with which we reconsider these judgments in light of fresh evidence. It is easy, even for sophisticated professionals, to slip into tautological patterns of historical reasoning: “I know x caused y because, if there had been no x, there would have been no y. And I know that, ‘if no x, no y’ because I know x caused y.” Given the ontological inadequacies of history as a teacher and our psychological inadequacies as pupils, it begins to look impossible to learn anything that we were not previously predisposed to learn.