Sunday, June 28, 2009

William Urban: WHY STUDY HISTORY?

By William Urban

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan, the Impact of the Highly Improbable is an interesting read. The title comes from the long-held assumption that all swans were white, an assumption that remained true until Europeans made it to Australia, where swans were Black. They always had been, even back when Europeans assumed the all swans were white. Taleb moves on from this starting point to demonstrate that much of what we believe is not necessarily so, but also that it is dangerous to expect that what we know about the past or the present will be of much use in the future.
This is quite a challenge to the historian. Not that it will change the way we act day to day. Not like the difference caused by a decision that it didn’t matter whether we stopped at red lights or not. But what Taleb is saying is that the likelihood of an improbable event — someone else running a red light — is higher than we expect. Past observations should not be simplistic, based solely on our own experience, but sophisticated, based on statistics.
Changes occur swiftly, even suddenly. Every driver knows how routine driving can be, especially in a small town where the principal danger is running into a stop sign. But your day can be literally ruined when somebody absent-mindedly runs past that stop sign into you. Texting has increased that likelihood significantly, especially when the driver is making a turn on Broadway.
The implications of Taleb’s observation are great. One might assume that the economy will go rolling along year after year, that one’s job will continue unchanged until retirement, and that one’s health will remain good (a bit overweight, a bit out of shape, but still okay), but Taleb says, “Not so fast! You’re living in a fool’s paradise.”
It’s not that the public is composed of fools. But every new business that becomes a success is one that many people have studied and decided was unlikely to make money. What people choose to do is something safe — low risk and low earnings. Those who win big (or lose equivalently) take on improbable enterprises. As Bruce Williams says on the radio, “Running your own business is the most exciting thing you can do.” Also the scariest.
Which is one reason that bad economic times can be good for people. Not everyone, but for those who had been stuck in the safe but slow lane of life and now find themselves having to choose between the fast lane and lying down in it. Black Swans are also opportunities.
Why do we not recognize the likelihood that something unexpected will happen? Because we are hard-wired to make sense of our environment. If we didn’t automatically look for predictability, we’d hardly be able to get through a day. For better or worse, we usually drive on auto-pilot; otherwise, we’d all be like student drivers, being so careful that if we were distracted, we’d overreact and crash into something. (Teenagers love to text, too.)
Now what is the historian to do with Taleb’s insight? Some might conclude that names and dates can now be forgotten. As if that was the heart of history. Names and dates are the stuff of which the narrative is made. No names, no story. But what is important is how we got where we are, and why we hold the attitudes we do. That is, why we believed that all swans were white. Marxists and religious fanatics use history as a political tool to tell their partial narrative and to point the inevitable way to the future. It is these people, not ordinary historians, who will be confounded by Taleb. If they read him, which is unlikely — people chose to read whatever confirms their view of the world, not confuse it.
And there’s the rub. Historians are like everyone else, taking the easy way, no risk way out. Only those who take on the improbable — making history fun, interesting and informative — will prosper in hard times. Marxists will think that hard times are good for them, but improbable as it might sound, their message is most popular among those for whom life is good — well-educated people who have few worries about the future. Just lots of guilt. How’s that for having lots of fun?

Review Atlas (June 25, 2009), 4.

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