The historian’s fallacy
January 9, 2011 1 Comment
Historians’ Fallacies has a bunch of good examples of hindsight bias in writing history. Writing history, we often make events seem really significant if they turned out to play an important role in the course of history, but often those events went largely unnoticed at the time. Art historian Bernard Berenson summed up this fallacious way of thinking nicely: “Significant events are those events that have contributed to making us what we are today.”
For example, even though historians often describe the buildup to WWI as a series of “mounting tensions” and “escalating crises,” the war was actually much more of a surprise than we think. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb describes in The Black Swan, historian Niall Ferguson demonstrated this cleverly by examining the prices of imperial bonds — imperial bond prices normally decline if investors anticipate a war, because wars cause deficits, but they show no such decline in the months before WWI.
You can also see the historian’s fallacy sometimes in the way historians write about a historical figure’s behavior and motivations as if he knew the role he played in history. (For example, writing about John Adams as if he thought of himself as a Founding Father, and interpreting his speeches and letters as if he knew how the Republic would develop.) But I kind of like the way some historians have found to compensate: the “fog-of-war” technique, in which they give their readers only as much information about the unfolding situation as the historical figure himself knew at that time.