History jumps

Teaching “Religion and Research Methods in Comparative Politics” this semester has given me a chance to assign methodological readings that would otherwise not fit comfortably with our curriculum. The overall aim of the class is to introduce students to different methods used in the social sciences while also exposing them to research on religion and politics. Thus, in addition to learning about specific arguments and theories, we pay special attention to the methods used by scholars in comparative politics.

Not long ago we read excerpts from The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. Readers who are familiar with my blog know that I see Taleb’s as one the most original thinkers in the last 100 years. I have written about his arguments on this blog before (link) and a more comprehensive introduction to his thought has been written by Joshua P. Hochschild (link).

One major argument developed by Taleb is that history jumps. The paradox, of course, is that once we look back at a particular occurrence, we can easily reconstruct the chain of events that caused it. In short, our brain tells us that history crawls. But the ease with which we reconstruct prior events should give us pause. If history was so obvious, we would be much better at making predictions (and we are not good at that).

So what is causing our distortions? Taleb mentions three factors, referring to them as “the triplets of opacity.” They include:

  • The illusion of understanding – we think we understand how the world works, but we really have no idea. We might think, for example, that there is a sure path to become a millionaire. And while some factors are clearly necessary (e.g., good job, social capital, little to no debt), luck plays a more important role that most people care to recognize. The point is not that it is all luck, only that the influence of luck is undervalued.

 

  • The retrospective distortion – the bias here is that events make perfect sense to us after the fact (but not before it). I could create a linear story that has led to my teaching position at Albion. Looking back at it, I almost feel that it had to work out, and yet in those moments I remind myself how uncertain the situation was just a year ago. My memory is still fresh enough for me to do that, but as more time passes, the more certain I am that I was meant to teach at a liberal arts college.

 

  • The overvaluation of factual information – put simply: we care too much about what we know and not enough about what we do not know. There are a reasons why people addicted to watching news are afraid of burglars, shark attacks, and immigrants, all while smoking cigarettes, being 100 pounds overweight, and with thousands of dollars in debt. The last three items are much dangerous to their well being, and yet they are undervalued because these tend not to be major news highlights.

All in all, history is much more messy than we care to admit. Applying Taleb’s framework to their own situations, students in my class found, for example, that their choice to come to Albion was more random than they initially assumed. But the story does not end there: essentially every important event in our life was – to a greater or smaller degree – associated with luck. The fact is that history jumps, and it will continue to do so. Knowing that, however, is already an improvement over the previous state of affairs.

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