Came across this passage in economist Daniel Kahneman's new book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained. As Nassim Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, our tendency to construct and believe coherent narratives of the past makes it difficult for us to accept the limits of our forecasting ability. Everything makes sense in hindsight, a fact that financial pundits exploit every evening as they offer convincing accounts of the day’s events. And we cannot suppress the powerful intuition that what makes sense in hindsight today was predictable yesterday. The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.
The often-used image of the “march of history” implies order and direction. Marches, unlike strolls or walks, are not random. We think that we should be able to explain the past by focusing on either large social movements and cultural and technological developments or the intentions and abilities of a few great men. The idea that large historical events are determined by luck is profoundly shocking, although it is demonstrably true. It is hard to think of the history of the twentieth century, including its large social movements, without bringing in the role of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong. But there was a moment in time, just before an egg was fertilized, when there was a fifty-fifty chance that the embryo that became Hitler could have been a female. Compounding the three events, there was a probability of one-eighth of a twentieth century without any of the three great villains and it is impossible to argue that history would have been roughly the same in their absence. The fertilization of these three eggs had momentous consequences, and it makes a joke of the idea that long-term developments are predictable. [Emphasis mine.]
So, Kahneman, perhaps unintentionally, brushes aside one of the core claims historians supposedly make about history: that we can understand it.
But do historians actually make this claim? I seem to remember being taught in school about the inherent limitations in understanding the past, both in terms of records (much of what we know about Rome comes from records that were preserved by Middle Age monks, for instance -- and they made choices about what to preserve and transcribe), and that anyway the past, as L.P. Hartley so wonderfully put it, "is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Modern historians, so the thinking goes, should always be aware of their own historicity.
Well, not so much a desk as a table, but the principle's the same....
So why an editor’s blog, and why now?
Arthur Brisbane (not this Arthur Brisbane—his grandson) wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times this past Sunday calling for the paper to do more to interact with its readership beyond the individual Twitter accounts of its many, many reporters. Among other things, he suggested the creation of an institutional editorial blog so that the paper as an comprehensive entity could interact directly with its readers.
This got us at HNN thinking: though we have a healthy presence on Facebook and Twitter (and we’re continuing to explore expanding to yet more social networks—LinkedIn, anyone?), and though I often interact with readers in comments threads, we lack a dedicated forum to communicate directly with readers.
To that end, we decided to establish the Editor’s Desk blog, maintained by editor David A. Walsh (who is, appropriately enough, me), with the goal of publishing at least one (preferably several) substantive post a week.
My overriding goal is interactivity—I want this blog to be a place where readers can query me about editorial policy (of both the “why did you run this piece?” and “why don’t you capitalize religious in the ‘religious Right’?” variety), where I can post interesting things that I’ve run across both on HNN and on the web and throw them open to discussion, and where both the editorial staff and readers can talk about upcoming features, upcoming events, and matters of interest to historians and people interested in history. I’m particularly looking forward to talking about the role of historians in public life!
Because I will personally be responsible for the Editor’s Desk blog, I’ll be walking a fine line between official HNN policy and my own personal opinions. I’ll make sure to note when I’m making a personal statement (for instance, I like Ike, too) and when I’m speaking as HNN editor (like when saying that HNN is a non-partisan website, and myself, publisher Rick Shenkman, our editorial staff, and our interns take that mission very seriously).
So, personal introductions. I was originally an intern for HNN before coming on as an editor in 2010. I graduated with a B.A. in history from the University of Minnesota concentrating in American history, and I wrote my senior thesis on a handful of intellectuals who were affiliated with the John Birch Society in its early days. Since joining HNN, I’ve written a number of articles and conducted a number of interviews for the site, and I’ve covered the past five American Historical Association and Organization of American Historians conventions—looking forward to OAH in Milwaukee in April!
To end on a somewhat more substantive note, there’s a fascinating chart up today at Mother Jones on the cost of historical presidential campaigns:
My first thought—pre-1956 elections are really useful only for base-line comparisons (and even then, of limited utility) since they belong to the pre-TV age. Kevin Drum pointed out, though, that from ’64 to 2000, presidential campaign costs have been relatively stable. So what accounts for the explosion in costs starting in 2000?
(Hat tip: Jonathan Dresner).