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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

when I predict an event, it stays predicted

Henry Maine starts out his classic anti-democracy treatise, Popular Government (one of the great books in the Burkean tradition) by considering the predictability of the French Revolution:

“THE blindness of the privileged classes in France to the Revolution which was about to overwhelm them furnishes 'some of the' best-worn commonplaces of modern history. There was no doubt much in it to surprise us. What King, Noble, and Priest could not see, had been easily visible to the foreign observer. ‘In short," runs the famous passage in Chesterfield's letter of December 25,1753, “all the symptoms which I ever met with in history previous to great changes and revolutions in government now exist and daily increase in France." A large number of writers of our day, manifesting the wisdom which comes after the event, have pointed out that the sips of a terrible time ought not to have been mistaken. The Court,
the Aristocracy, and the Clergy should have understood that, in face of the irreligion which was daily becoming more fashionable, the belief in privilege conferred by birth could not be long maintained.”

Yet, as Maine points out, the backward glance that sees all the signs pointing to the Revolution ignores the fact that the natives of that time were, after all, as well or even better informed than we are, and many of the most brilliant of them did not see the signs – in fact, quite the reverse. David Hume, “a careful observer of France,” and indisputably a more brilliant man than Chesterfield, wrote in 1742 that France was the most perfect model of monarchy, about which he wrote: “But though all kinds of government be improved in modern times, yet monarchical government seems to have made the greatest advances towards perfection. It may now be affirmed of civilized monarchies, what was formerly said in praise of republics alone, that they are a government of Laws, not of Men. They are found susceptible of order, method, and constancy, to a surprizing degree. Property is there secure; industry encouraged; the arts flourish; and the prince lives secure among his subjects, like a father among his children.”

Prediction, upon which the scientist and the fortune-teller both pride themselves, presents a demonic temptation to the pundit, or to anyone pronouncing on public affairs. Public affairs are so multifarious, so crammed with events and their ghosts, that predicting the future is much like a man at the back of a crowd trying to guess the face of a man in the front of a crowd. Even if you can fill in the broad features with happy guesses – skin color and sex, for instance – the particulars are probably going to be much different. Recent comments by Paul and Patrick to a post of mine about Iran – a post in which I deliver, with the kind of suitable modesty that makes for later denials, my own predictions about the upcoming war, or lack of it, between Iran and the U.S. – made me think of one particular hazard of soothsaying – ignorance about the very nature of counterfactuals.

The source of the discussion between Paul and me arises, partly, from our differing judgments about Niall Ferguson’s article in the Telegraph – and, happily, Niall Ferguson is an entirely appropriate figure to haunt any post about counterfactuals, since Ferguson is well known for believing that historians have a duty to introduce them into their histories. Ferguson’s article in the Telegraph isn’t a history, of course – it uses his reputation as a historian to present a florid and alarmist picture of Iran and Israel starting a nuclear war that quickly spreads throughout the world. Given Ferguson’s prominence in the field of alternative histories, the neo-con vision he unrolls is recognizably the heir of his more professional concerns, which have in turn been treated pretty severely by a school of thought that I tend to, by temperament: the more nominalistically inclined school of limited counterfactual use. The latter tends towards a Hayekian suspicion of the human ability to calculate future events according to their probabilities with any great accuracy. In other words, this school takes seriously the work of ‘economic psychologists’ such as Tversky and Kahneman. As readers of Limited Inc know, the probability turn is one I am crazy about, since it overturns our intuition about how right our intuitions are. Among this schools leaders is Richard Lebow, who just happened to write one of the best papers on counterfactuals and history (What’s so different about a counterfactual) – a review essay, as it happens, of Ferguson’s The Pity of War and Alternative Histories. This is a paper that every person who sets himself up, Humpty Dumpty like, to pronounce upon public affairs should read, at one time or another. In fact, in the short list, this public spirited H.D. should also read Gigerenzer and some of Tversky and Kahneman's output.

Which paper I will discuss tomorrow.

ps -- for the best commentary on the Iranian "crisis" and real steps to defuse it, read this article in the Huffington Post by Shirin Ebadi and Muhammad Sahimi. The bulk of what they say LI agrees with. And if there is really a hawkish move to attack Iran, the points they suggest should be the center of the counter-movement -- unlike the anti-war movement before the invasion, lets home the anti war with Iran movement thinks about alternatives.

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