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August 27, 2007

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Contingency and Counterfactual

Dani Rodrik, in the closing of a post on historical determinism and development:

This may seem discouraging if you are interested not only in understanding the world, but also in changing it. On closer look, though, [Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson]’s historical determinism leaves plenty of room for human agency and policy choices to make a difference, as I have argued here. Statistically, plenty is left unexplained by historical factors.

Ha. Neat. I sort of like that: We get to be the error term.

Related: My train reading these days is Virtual History, a collection of counterfactuals edited by Niall Ferguson. Fun discovery: To spin an even mildly convincing counterfactual, you have to make sure the fundamental facts leading up to your branch-point are really solid. So oddly it’s in the fake-history book that I’m learning about all these real events (a lot of World War II stuff, etc.) in more detail than I ever have before. I think Ferguson and other fans of counterfactual would say yes, that’s the point.

Just discovered: Philip Tetlock, the terrific Berkeley researcher I saw give a Long Now talk on experts and forecasting earlier this year, also has a book of counterfactuals! Why was I not told of this earlier??

Psst: Any favorite what-if scenarios?

Posted August 27, 2007 at 11:32 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Snarkpolicy, Society/Culture


Lately, my favorite 'what-if' scenario has been imagining a world in which the Kingdom of Hawaii was never overthrown and remained apart from the United States. It usually ends with pineapple sushi in Hawaii Prefecture, but that's hardly realistic.

If the error term of historical determinism is what steers you towards a 20th century as the USSR, China, North Korea... that's a pretty important error term.

My most recent bout of what-ifs centered around "could the Western powers, at the end of WWI, have done more to sway the outcome of the Russian Civil War?" And then "if they had scaled up their involvement and still failed to stop the Bolsheviks, could this have lead to a faster alliance between Hitler and Stalin?" Kind of in the context of more recent US interventionism... But like you say, to play this game I think you need to have some serious chops and I don't got 'em.

Man in the High Castle anyone? For SF people: I love how the Embarcadero Freeway factors into the final scenes of that book. We tore that s#!t down!

Re: your interest in the interwar period --

I would like to know if historians have any generally agreed-upon sense of some periods (short ones -- decades, not centuries) being more 'pivotal' than others -- more pregnant with potential to determine the shape & structure of large human systems for long time periods afterwards.

In a recent Atlantic piece Joshua Green explained that Karl Rove's entire view of American politics rested (past tense! hurrah!) on the assumption that a) such pivotal periods exist, and b) you can see them coming, and c) you can bend them to your will.

Putting Rove's particular implementation of this view aside, I find the idea that the error term (as it were) is sometimes bigger and sometimes smaller an insanely alluring idea.

BUT if you told me that (a) is false, and that actually almost EVERY period has that potential -- & whether it turns into a truly pivotal period or not is all contingency -- I'd totally believe that too.

Or maybe I'd just pretend to believe it, secretly plotting my gambit for (c)...

@JB -- I think there's a mildly dystopian anime movie waiting to be made there. How 'bout I come to Hawaii & we'll discuss it?

Me too, I will also come to Hawaii.

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