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Critical thinking about History

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Critical thinking history, hindsight bias, postdiction, historians fallacy, presentism, chronological snobbery, rosy retrospection, golden age fallacy

In this article the mistakes we make in our thinking about history:

Let’s begin:

Hindsight bias (aka “knew-it-all-along phenomenon”)

“After the event, even a fool is wise” – Homer

Did you know that the Toronto Raptors would win the 2019 NBA Championship?

How about that Donald Trump would be elected 2016 US President?

What about Brexit or the 2008 Global Financial Crisis?

Was it obvious?

Predictable?

Yeah right.

The hindsight bias, also known as the “knew-it-all-along phenomenon”, is the common tendency for people to perceive past events (especially unexpected events) as having being far more predictable than they really were.

Hindsight bias causes people to look back at sporting upsets, stock market crashes, shock election results etc. and to claim that they “knew it” and “predicted it” and “told you so”, when most of the time they didn’t.

And even if someone did get one or two predictions right, what about the hundreds of predictions they’ve gotten wrong?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, we can and should learn from our past experiences and mistakes.

The hindsight bias however, causes distortions in our memories about what we actually believed and knew before an event occured. It can cause us to misremember past events as being far more predictable than they really were ahead of time, to see patterns that don’t exist, and to imagine our powers of foresight to be greater than they really are, all of which leads us to become overconfident and delusional.

Don’t lie to yourself and act like the future is more predictable than it really is. Of course everything is obvious after the fact when you already know what happens, but most future events aren’t as obvious and predictable as they seem when you’re living through them.

“It is easy to be wise after the event.” – Arthur Conan Doyle 

If the future was easy to predict than the millions of know-it-all’s who love to claim that they “knew it” and “predicted it” and “told you so” after the fact, would be bankrupting the bookmakers, casinos and lotteries. They’d be buying low and selling high, getting in at the very bottom and getting out at the very top, and picking every political and sporting upset, but that just isn’t the case.

Postdiction (aka “retroactive clairvoyance”)

Postdiction/retroactive clairvoyance is the opposite of prediction.

  • Prediction is claiming a specific event in the future
  • Postdiction is taking vague and ambiguous predictions or statements from the past (e.g. from Nostradamus) and interpreting them via mental gymnastics to have predicted events that have already happened

Before you fall for postdiction or believe any prediction, ask yourself:

Is the prediction specific?

A true prediction would be specific and name names/dates/places/events etc. just like the kind of prediction you would make if you went back into the past.

If Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, Baba Vanga etc. could really predict or see the future they would say something like this:

“On September 11, 2001, four planes will be hijacked and flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon causing the death of thousands”

Instead of some vague ambiguous crap like this:

“The American brethren will fall after being attacked by the steel birds” – Baba Vanga

If a prediction or prophecy is so vague and ambiguous that it simply refers to a “disaster” or “tragedy” but doesn’t provide names/dates/places/events etc. and can’t tell you what/where/when/how etc. than it can’t be used to predict anything, and is therefore worthless.

Is the prediction falsifiable?

Does the prediction make a claim that is impossible to falsify?

A true prediction is specific and falsifiable:

“On December 21, 2012 the world will end”

Now that we have a specific date, we can test it. This is a real prediction instead of some unfalsifiable cryptic crap about “an unexpected event, tragedy in the skies” etc.

Is it a catch-all prediction?

When Croesus asked the Oracle of Delphi whether or not he should attack the Persians, she said, “If you attack you will destroy a mighty empire”. So he attacked the Persians and got his own empire destroyed.

A real prediction with actual foresight would have said, “If you attack the Persians you will lose, and your empire will be destroyed”. Instead of something so misleading that it could (and was) be so easily misconstrued.

Is it statistically likely?

Is it a prediction for “conflict” or “terrorism” to occur in the middle-east, or volatility in the stock market?

Is it a shotgun prediction?

A shotgun prediction is many predictions given at once to cover a range of events, and then claim credit even if only one of them happens. For example, a psychic might claim that Friday 13th is “unlucky” and then cite a dozen or so things that might occur on it, and then claim credit if even one of them does (nevermind all of the false predictions that didn’t occur)

Was it written or produced after the fact?

When “psychic” Tamara Rand predicted that Ronald Reagan was in danger of being shot by someone with the initials “J.H.” back in January 1981, two months before the fact, everyone was amazed.

However, it turned out that the interview which provided “proof” of this prediction was actually shot the day after the assassination attempt on March 31st 1981.

Similarly, many predictions written after the fact have been accredited to Nostradamus.

What is the track record of the predictor?

Every year we see clickbait articles “Nostradamus 2019 predictions” as if a) Nostradamus had made specific predictions for each year and b) he had this amazing track record, when the fact is there isn’t any evidence that Nostradamus has ever predicted anything before it occurred – ever.

However by taking his vague and ambiguous statements and projecting their own interpretations onto them, his supporters can claim that he’s predicted everything from the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, to the death of JFK and 9/11. They try to make it seem like he predicted everything when in reality he has predicted nothing.

Count the misses, not just the hits

Before you believe in the predictive power of any clairvoyant or psychic, remember to count the misses just as much as the hits.

Superstitious believers tend to have very selective memories, only remembering the few times their favorite clairvoyant or psychic seemed to have guessed right, whilst simultaneously ignoring the thousands of things they got wrong.

“The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.” – Francis Bacon

For a more detailed breakdown: 25 hilariously wrong future predictions

Have the goalposts been moved?

When Harold Camping predicted that the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011, and it didn’t happen, and that the end of the world would occur on October 21, 2011, and that didn’t happen, he then claimed that it was a “spiritual” judgment day.

Similarly, in the 1950’s, a small UFO religion in Chicago called the Seekers claimed that a great flood would destroy the world on December 21, 1954 and that they the true believers, would be taken away by a flying saucer. When that didn’t happen, the leader then claimed that the God of Earth has decided to spare the planet from destruction because, “The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”

Yay!

The next four fallacies are fallacies of perspective:

Historians fallacy

The historians fallacy is when we make the mistake of assuming that decision makers in the past viewed things from the same perspective as we do in the present, and had access to the same information as we do now.

This isn’t fair because people can only work with the information they have at the time, and there are lots of things that are only obvious in retrospect.

American historian David Hackett Fischer, who coined the phrase “Historian’s fallacy,” cited the claim that the United States should have anticipated Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor because of the many warning signs that an attack was in the cards. However, those signs seem obvious only in hindsight, at the time many signs suggested attacks on positions other than Pearl Harbor.

Historians fallacy examples

“They should have had more lifeboats on the Titanic!”

“They should have immediately evacuated everyone from the South Tower of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 as soon as the North Tower was hit!”

“How stupid are those twelve idiot book publishers that rejected Harry Potter!”

“What an idiot George Bell the CEO of Excite was for rejecting an offer to buy Google in 1999 from Larry Page and Sergey Brin for $1 million! Even when he said no, they re-offered it to him for $750,000, and he still rejected the offer!” (Google’s parent company Alphabet is currently valued at $765 billion)

Idiots right?

Not necessarily.

It’s easy to look back with a smug know-it-all attitude when you have more information, and know exactly how everything will turn out, but people living in the past didn’t know how these things were going to turn out, just like you didn’t know that buying Bitcoin at eight cents in 2010 would make you a fortune today.

Presentism

Presentism is judging the beliefs and behaviors of people in the past, based on the moral and ethical standards of today.

This is unfair however. You can’t judge the “sins” of the past racism, sexism, homophobia etc. with an attitude of “they should have known better”.

Today we know better than to be assholes and bitches, to say and do things to hurt people, but we do.

If it wasn’t okay for people in the past to discriminate based on gender, race, skin color or sexual orientation, why is it okay for people in the present to discriminate based on height, looks, body type, personality or status?

The fact is that most people are followers. If everyone you know is racist, sexist, homophobic, and you’re taught and raised to think that way, and society is that way, you probably will be too.

These same virtual signalling self-righteous SJW’s that are so “woke” and quick to accuse people of being a sexist, racist, Nazi etc. would likely be Nazi’s that loved Hitler if they lived in 1940’s Germany.

How do I “know” this? Because most people aren’t independent critical thinkers that go against the crowd. They’re brainwashed indoctrinated followers. Most people’s attitudes, beliefs and behavior are just a product of the time and place they’ve living in.

Instead of condescendingly judging people in the past, we should seek to understand them, in the contexts of their own times and places.

Chronological Snobbery

Similar to presentism we need to beware of chronological snobbery.

Chronological snobbery is the attitude or belief that the thoughts, beliefs, behavior etc. of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present, simply by virtue that since civilization has advanced in certain areas, therefore people of earlier time periods were less intelligent (never mind that they invented computers, the internet, cars, planes, space shuttles, light bulbs, language, medicine, mathematics, science etc.)

C.S. Lewis coined the term and said this about chronological snobbery:

“The uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.

From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

We can learn a lot from the past and from those who came before us. I’m often amazed when I hear delusional know-it-alls condescendingly talking about people like Aristotle and Sigmund Freud as if they were know-nothing idiots.

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” ― Aldous Huxley

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” ― Edmund Burke

“The man who has no sense of history, is like a man who has no ears or eyes.” ― Adolf Hitler

Do you think the average person today is smarter than Socrates? Aristotle? Isaac Newton? Leonardo Da Vinci? Albert Einstein? I know I’m cherry picking some of the smartest people in history, but we need to get out of this stupid fallacy of assuming that people in the present are automatically smarter by default than people were in the past, and that our ways are better than their ways. It’s just not true. We might have more information available to us than ever before thanks to the internet, but most people are just as intellectually lazy, gullible and stupid as they’ve ever been.

Golden age fallacy (aka “good old days fallacy”)

Ah, the good old days.

Wasn’t the past so much better than the present?

Actually, no.

It’s common to romanticize the past and to look back with rose-tinted glasses and a selective memory at the “good old days” (this is known as rosy retrospection) but was the past really better than today?

In some respects sure, I grew up in the 80’s, and I still love 80’s music way more than today’s music, but there is no way that the 80’s were better than today.

Would you like to return to a world without the internet?

I believe we are living in the greatest time in all of human history by far:

  • Longest life expectancy in history
  • Healthcare/medicine has never been better
  • Science and technology has never been better
  • Entertainment, sports, video games have never been better
  • Everything is faster, easier and more convenient than ever before
  • We have more information and options than ever before
  • Food has never been more abundant
  • Shopping has never been better
  • Networking has never been easier
  • Lowest crime rate in history
  • Most peaceful time in history
  • Less racism, sexism, homophobia etc.
  • It’s never been easier to get rich or to start a business
  • It’s never been easier to travel and see the world
  • Free education and entertainment (Google, YouTube, Reddit, Wikipedia, the internet etc.)

Even if you prefer the music, movies, TV etc. from a bygone era such as the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s etc. it’s not like these things have disappeared and gone away.

Living today you get the best of both worlds: You can still read/watch/listen to all of your old favorite books, movies and music from the past, plus you get to enjoy today’s modern technologies: Internet, Google, YouTube, email, blogs, podcasts, iPhones, social media etc.

You can also learn from some of the wisest people who have ever lived e.g. Aristotle, Buddha, Einstein etc. without needing to live in a world with bad food, bad hygiene, no electricity, no computers, no internet, no phones, no TV etc.

You can read more about this here: Why we are living in the greatest time ever

“If anyone thinks they’d rather be in a different part of history, they’re probably not a very good student of history. Life sucked in the old days. People knew very little, and you were likely to die at a young age of some horrible disease. You’d probably have no teeth by now. It would be particularly awful if you were a woman.” – Elon Musk

Thinking critically about history

Final thoughts: No account of history is unbiased and objective, and no one is going to paint their people in a bad light as evil mass murderers and rapists (even if they were)

Here are some quick questions to ask yourself the next time you’re reading a history book or watching a documentary about history:

Critical thinking questions

  • Who is the author(s)? What is their background?
  • What reviews exist? Are they from academic journals or popular publications?
  • When was the book published? (Generally, the more recent, the better, because you want the latest most up-to-date information)
  • From whose perspective is this written? (You’re likely to get vastly different accounts of World War II depending on where in the world you live)
  • Does this seem like a balanced account, or does it have a positive or negative spin to it?

“By its very nature, history is always a one-sided account.” ― Dan Brown

  • Who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”?
  • What evidence exists to support these “facts”?
  • How often does the book cite its information? (footnotes, endnotes etc.)
  • What/how many primary sources does it use?

I don’t totally agree with the following quote:

“History is a set of lies agreed upon.” ― Napoleon Bonaparte

But you’re definitely not getting all the facts from history books…

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” ― Winston S. Churchill

“History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?” ― Dan Brown

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