Fetishism and History

The Pulitzer prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer once lampooned pop history writers and even some of his colleagues with the title of a paper on historical fallacies called ‘Dear Diary, the Hundred Years’ War Started Today…’ (If you don’t get the joke, you are not qualified to speak on any historical subject. Ever.)

People love to opine. I’m doing it right now! And when their opinations — yes, I made that up, but it’s apt — coincide with other people opinations, groupthink sets in. This is usually confounded by any number of heuristics and biases.

In the psychology of judgment and decision-making, a heuristic is “any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical methodology not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for immediate goals” (Wikipedia). It’s a jargon word used in many fields of study to represent slightly different phenomena, but in psychology you can think of it like an instinct — a genetically-programmed rule of thumb, part of a larger decision-making toolkit endemic to the brain that you employ without any knowledge of it at all.

I call them “shortcuts,” and while they are very powerful methods of keeping you alive, they are really shitty at parsing almost any topic you might care to argue about (on the internet, for example). That’s because, as the Wikipedia definition states, these shortcuts are not designed to identify truth, or even optimal solutions. They’re simply aiming for a  minimally acceptable solution — ANY minimally acceptable solution — that overcomes an immediate hurdle.

This is not all bad. Heuristics work well in situations of uncertainty where there is more than one minimally-satisfactory outcome — choosing which car to buy, for example, or whether or not now is a good time to cross the street. They are terrible at evaluating complex topics like climate change, evolution, or the alternatives to history, because they work (according to some great research that came out about ten years ago) by means of “attribute substitution,” the subconscious swapping of a highly complex and therefore intractable question for one of lesser complexity.

By the way, this happens completely invisibly and without your knowledge. You cannot feel when your brain has constrained your thoughts. Psychologists have found that attribute substitution happens without their subject’s knowledge — that is, people give an answer and are completely unaware that their brain has subtly changed the question.

Creationists do this all the time, and if you conclude from that that they are dumb and you are smart, well… you aren’t smart enough to get the point! Thinking is thinking and it always feels the same regardless of whether you’re an idiot, which is why your own estimation of your intelligence is total bunk and the morons of the world — which may include you — never realize it.

(Hence you should rarely, if ever, engage them. Genuine opportunities to educate are uncommon and require more than the sharpest armamentarium of facts.)

As a particular species of this general phenomenon, the availability heuristic is a means of calculating probability under conditions of uncertainty by measuring speed of recall. The faster you can come up with an example of an event, the more likely it is assumed to be.

Note that the brain doesn’t count all recalled instances of an event and sum them. It simply measures how fast you can bring a single instance to mind. Common events pack your memory, so speed of recall is a fair estimator of relative probability under certain bounded conditions, such as life on the savanna in 150,000 BCE. But complex, rare, and/or cryptic events — like the existence of god, how to process nuclear waste, or the possibility of extraterrestrial life — are well beyond the scope of your brain’s handy little pocket wrench.

The possible outcomes of any decision are a function of three inputs: information, computational power, and time. Experts try to maximize all three and are therefore reluctant to give premature answers, which is wholly different than your desire to come up with the quickest, most devastating retort in an argument.

All of this, then, is the problem with evaluating historical occurrences. As mark twain noted, history does not reveal its alternatives. You will always recall what actually happened. You will never recall anything that almost happened but didn’t. Such possibilities are forever lost.

The availability heuristic is also (probably) the biological origin of hindsight bias, or the tendency for people to assume, in hindsight, that actual outcomes were the most likely or the even default condition from the start. It’s particularly damning when applied in retrospect to historical actors, who do not occupy a position of safety well after the events in question (time), who did not have decades of subsequent scholarship on the events in question (information) as well as whole teams of academics (computational power) to detail every bad decision.

When I was a medical student in the late 90s, I did a mini-rotation at the VA. The state school I attended was clinically (rather than research) oriented, so students had to get out of the classroom and into the hospitals beginning their very first week — when, as my friends and I noted, there was effectively no difference in skills or knowledge between us and the patients!

One of our appointed tasks was to practice taking patient histories, so my attending physician at the VA sent me in to talk to an old WWII vet who was waiting on some test results and didn’t mind chatting.

Twenty minutes later he was in tears. (We all agreed he had some “undiagnosed” PTSD, which is to say no one officially wrote it in a file.) I got to hear about how war is long stretches of abject boredom punctuated by brief flurries of life-altering activity. I got to hear what it’s like to lay in camp every afternoon and every night wondering when you were going to die, like your last two bunk mates on the transport ship. I got to hear what it’s like to dig a foxhole in a jungle while bullets are strafing over your head, how that foxhole would then fill with water from the ever-present tropical rains, how that water-filled hole became your home for days or even weeks at a time, how poisonous snakes found it much more cozy than you and every time you returned — from shitting under a palm, for example, hoping the Japanese fifty yards away didn’t choose that exact moment to attack — you had to make sure your hole was still yours and not a snake’s. I got to hear about man-eating sharks, and what it’s like to watch your friends get shot.

And I got to hear what it’s like to wrestle for your life with a man you didn’t hate before stabbing him with a bayonet and watching him die.

War is the tragedy. Don’t make a fetish out of a single act.


[image courtesy of the u.s. national archives]