The spectacular bias

We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written (peccavimus) is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting-because it is exceptional. If all those individuals who had no Boswell had found their numerically proportionate place in the pages of historians we should have a duller but juster view of the past and of man.

This is from The Lessons of History, a short book that is deeply problematic in some parts and refreshingly frank in others.

This is somewhat understandable given it is more than fifty years old. But the exhortations to not strip history from both historians and ourselves, and so the context within which it has been understood and transmitted, are timeless.

To begin with, do we really know what the past was, what actually happened, or is history ” a fable” not quite “agreed upon”? Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship. “Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice”.

I’d argue the same is true for the present. Our view of the world is inevitably shaped by what we find noticeable, what others do, and the context within which this happens.

This could be dictated by the medium – stories related visually are inherently biased by the availability and power of the images. It could also be impacted by time, technology, ideology, culture and many other factors.

But the spectacular reigns supreme. No one sets out to tell a boring anecdote in a bar. The world, the story, reality, as in history, is probably far more mundane.

A plea for more humility about what we ‘“know”

…we can’t help turning up our pattern-making instinct to 11–when life offers only a 5. Too often, we make bold claims about big forces with law-like effects, but with culpable overconfidence that leads us to waste time, money, talent and energy, and detract from real progress… I’d like our claims to be more proportionate to the awkwardness of the task. Every new generation needs reminding of the overconfidence of every previous generation, of how much there is still to know and do, and, above all, how resistant the raw materials of life can be.

Reading books like Thinking In Bets, The Lady Tasting Tea and The Drunkards Walk, it’s hard not to be thoroughly disaffected with the deterministic model of the universe most of us carry in our heads.

Green tea causes weight loss, your aunt tells you. You should try get into that school cause it’s the best, they say.

In fact, it’s tempting to draw this back to school, where we’re taught to find the right answer, not the best approximation of one. Confounding, selection, randomness and the dozens of other thorns in simple causation aren’t even really hinted at.

It’s like a civilisation-wide Dunning-Kruger effect. We engage in pattern matching, fuelled by ascertainment and confirmation bias.

And, most importantly for The Hidden Half, where these excerpts are form, we try to boil all of this down into iron laws. The “noise” that inevitably screws up these simple heuristics are willed away or ignored, to be settled later.

But it’s here where author Michael Blastland really shines – in a plea to embrace the beauty of that which confounds our attempts at simplification.

I’m only a couple of chapters in but it’s already a rollicking ride.

I’ve no desire to dismiss or discourage genuine, careful and humble efforts to understand, and no desire either to knock down robust houses of brick alongside the mansions of straw. It would be easy, but deluded, to see this book as part of an anti-science cynicism that says everything is uncertain, and therefore nothing can be done. I reject that view entirely. On the contrary, I want more robust evidence precisely so that our decisions and actions can be more reliable. I sympathize entirely with how difficult it is to do that well. I applaud those who devote themselves to the problem conscientiously and carefully. This is why we must recognize our limitations, try to understand how they arise, tread more carefully and test what we know vigorously. It was once said that at certain times the world is over-run by false scepticism, but of the true kind there can never be enough. 20 This book aspires to the true kind. The goal is not cynicism; it is to do better.

As always my emphasis.