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Replaying History

6 Post author: gworley 08 May 2009 05:35AM

One of my favorite fiction genres is alternative history.  The basic idea of alternative history is to write a story set in an alternate universe where history played out differently.  Popular alternate histories include those where the Nazis win World War II, the USSR wins the Cold War, and the Confederate States of America win the American Civil War.  But most of the writing in this genre has a serious flaw:  the author starts out by saying "wouldn't it be cool to write a story where X had happened instead of Y" and then works backwards to concoct historical events that will lead to the desired outcome.  No matter how good the story is, the history is often bad because at every stage the author went looking for a reason for things to go his way.

Being unsatisfied with most alternate histories, I like to play a historical "what if" game.  Rather than asking the question at the conclusion, though (like "what if the Nazis had won the war"), I ask it at an earlier moment, ideally one where chance played an important role.  What if Napoleon had been convinced not to invade Russia?  What if the Continental Army had not successfully retreated from New York?  What if Viking settlements in Newfoundland had not collapsed?  These are as opposed to "What if Napoleon had never been defeated?", "What if the Colonies had lost the American Revolutionary War?", and "What if Vikings had developed a thriving civilization in the Americas?".  I find that replaying history in this way a fun use of my analytical skills, but more importantly a good test of my rationality.

One of the most difficult things in thinking of an alternative history is to stay focused on the facts and likely outcomes.  It's easy to say "I'd really like to see a world where X happened" and then silently or overtly bias your thinking until you find a way to achieve the desired outcome.  Learning to avoid this takes discipline, especially in a domain like alternate history where there's no way to check if your reasoning turned out to be correct.  But unlike imagining the future, making an alternate history does have the real history to measure up against, so it provides a good training ground for futurist who don't want to wait 20 or 30 years to get feedback on their thinking.

Given all this, I have two suggestions.  One, this indicates that a good way to teach history and rational thinking at the same time would be to present historical data up to a set point, ask students to reason out what they think will happen next in history, and then reveal what actually happened and use the feedback to calibrate and improve our historical reasoning (which will hopefully provide some benefit in other domains).  Second, a good way to build experience applying the skills of rationality is publicly present and critique alternate histories.

In that vein, if there appears to be sufficient interest, I'll start doing a periodic article here dedicated to the discussion of some particular alternative history.  The discussion will be in the comments:  people can propose outcomes, then others can revise and critique and propose other outcomes, continuing the cycle until we hit a brick wall (not enough information, question asks something that would not have changed history, etc.) or come to a consensus.

What do you all think of this idea?

Comments (19)

Comment author: Annoyance 08 May 2009 07:22:50PM 4 points [-]

The problem is that, with real history, it's impossible to do comparison experiments.

A lot of strategic computer games have functions that make it possible to determine what would happen if events turned out differently. In all seriousness, I recommend focusing your attention on those models.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 08 May 2009 07:55:47PM 2 points [-]

This is interesting. Please could you (or anyone else in the know) elaborate a little, and maybe give a few examples?

Comment author: steven0461 09 May 2009 06:02:54PM *  3 points [-]

Related exercise: try to figure out what would be the moral thing to do for someone transported into various historical situations. Assuming away third alternatives (like trying to educate people), do you aid the Normans or the English in 1066 AD? Octavian or Mark Antony in 31 BC? More importantly: on what do you base your answer? (No, you are not completely indifferent.)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 13 May 2009 09:25:57PM 0 points [-]

Doing this highlights the problem that doing the moral thing in year X would very often have disastrous consequences for people in year X+Y.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 10 May 2009 03:36:24PM 0 points [-]

Does the decision have to be based just on information available at the time, or is it taking into account what you know now about future repurcusions?

Comment author: steven0461 10 May 2009 04:05:05PM *  2 points [-]

You can use information gleaned from the present that applies to the past's future in general, but you can't assume the past's future will be the present. (Assume you brought a butterfly, and/or quantum randomness is redrawn.)

Comment author: steven0461 08 May 2009 04:02:09PM 3 points [-]

Some worries:

Very often, alternate history questions have no answer, because so many things could happen. Example: "If Julius Caesar dies as a child, who controls Italy in 2000 AD?" Even an easier question like "does the Roman Empire still exist in 500 AD" is going to be a matter of probability. One problem is that all people born after the point of divergence are going to have different genes.

I'm also intimidated by how much more reality knows about history than I do.

I don't really understand why "it provides a good training ground for futurist who don't want to wait 20 or 30 years to get feedback on their thinking" -- in alternate history, there's no feedback at all. Is it just a matter of having more unanswered questions to think about? We might consider trying to predict "alternate futures" in that case. Obscure real history avoids this problem, but we should watch out for biases in selecting questions and relevant information.

Comment author: randallsquared 08 May 2009 01:08:04PM 3 points [-]

I don't really see a sharp difference between the two types of "What if" you pose.

"What if Vikings had developed a thriving civilization in the Americas?" sort of implies "What if Viking settlements in Newfoundland had not collapsed?" to about the same degree that "What if Viking settlements in Newfoundland had not collapsed?" sort of implies "What if the climate in Greenland hadn't become inhospitable to Viking settlements?". For practical purposes, there's always a step further back to get to the cause of whatever effect you're whatiffing about.

Comment author: gworley 08 May 2009 02:08:50PM 0 points [-]

I know, it's somewhat hard to explain. The best way I know to point you towards the difference I see is considering a combination of scale and chance. The events I want to focus on should be small (not in the sense of their significance, but in the sense of their complexity) and easily affected by random variation. I don't know that there's a clear breaking point, and it's possible I'm overly affected by the writing of historians, who tend to tell the story of the past in such a way that certain events and outcomes are seen as "big deals" while others were inevitable steps or random chance. Since I know the history, I know what the "big deals" are and can steer around them and just feel like I'm not committing the sin of alternate history that annoys me.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 13 May 2009 09:23:23PM 2 points [-]

I recently bought a good, remaindered, very fat book called "What If?" at Borders for $6 that has about a thousand pages of such examples, presenting the historical context for each scenario.

Comment author: CronoDAS 10 May 2009 01:14:08AM *  1 point [-]

My favorite "what if" moment:

What if Theodore Roosevelt, and not Woodrow Wilson, had won the presidential election of 1912?

(For a non-silly way this could have happened, suppose that Taft had died of a heart attack or something the month before the election actually took place.)

Comment author: conchis 08 May 2009 11:34:00AM *  1 point [-]

One, this indicates that a good way to teach history and rational thinking at the same time would be to present historical data up to a set point, ask students to reason out what they think will happen next in history, and then reveal what actually happened and use the feedback to calibrate and improve our historical reasoning (which will hopefully provide some benefit in other domains).

I really like this idea, but it seems like it could be tricky to do this well (or alternatively, easy to do this badly). The key question is what data you present to people, given that you clearly can't present it all. Randomly selecting data risks missing useful stuff; while consciously selecting data risks falsely confirming the selector's theories about why stuff happened.

The first risk is probably less of a concern, and maybe getting students to ask for/research the data they think might be useful could help get around any remaining worries (as well as training people to ask the right questions)?

Comment author: gworley 08 May 2009 02:10:02PM 0 points [-]

I agree. It's a problem I'm not really sure of how to deal with and will have to work on hammering out if we do this.

Comment author: MrHen 08 May 2009 12:52:19PM 0 points [-]

Another concern is getting rid of the data in the participants heads. The biggest reason I am not terribly interested in alternate histories is that I do not know much about the history that happened. What I do know came from textbooks.

Shifting topics back to the original post, I have little issue with alternate histories choosing an ending and finding choices that could have led to that result. There is no reason bias needs to pollute this scenario.

I would probably be more interested in alternate histories that asked questions about things like Enron, Columbine, Bruce Lee, or DeLorean.

Comment author: gworley 08 May 2009 02:19:12PM 1 point [-]

Shifting topics back to the original post, I have little issue with alternate histories choosing an ending and finding choices that could have led to that result. There is no reason bias needs to pollute this scenario.

Once you know the conclusion you want, though, the human mind is very good at finding a way to make the details fit in between and make it feel like you're right. You're right that bias doesn't have to exist: there's nothing about having the conclusion first that inherently renders all hypothesized steps to reach it biased. After all, most sciences start out knowing the conclusion and have to work back to the source. But with alternate history rationalization easily sneaks in, so it's better to work the other direction so you can try to push the outcomes somewhere other than where they really ought to flow.

Comment author: MrHen 08 May 2009 02:44:10PM 0 points [-]

I agree. I think the flip-side is the temptation to claim the alternate goal is repressed but still feel disappointed when your alternate history of the Cold War ends with similar results. When I think of "alternate" I think "drastically different" not "minor details changed." But that is probably easier to dodge than pushing the result you want.

Comment author: Jordan 08 May 2009 06:51:52AM 1 point [-]

I like the idea of using history to train rationality, or even more specific subskills (economics, anthropology, etc).

There is more than enough history to choose from such that the likelihood of a student having prior exposure is near zero, especially if the chosen history involves more small scale politics/societies. If only we could selectively disable Wikipedia for some students.... or just lock students in a room for days at a time. Maybe a nice courtyard?

Comment author: jasonmcdowell 08 May 2009 06:43:15AM 1 point [-]

I'm interested in reading what you have to say on alternative histories. What era/event did you have in mind to start?

Comment author: badger 08 May 2009 05:59:19AM 1 point [-]

if there appears to be sufficient interest, I'll start doing a periodic article here dedicated to the discussion of some particular alternative history.

I'd be interested to try this out at least once and see how it goes from there.