Friday, 9 December 2011

A Rigorous Approach To Counter-Factuals

Getting a little more up-to-date with the books I have bought and am now reading, I came to 'Unmaking the West' by Philip Tetlock, Richard Lebow and Geoffrey Parker, published in 2004.  It is a collection of essays about various 'what if?'s that would have seen another region of the world rather than the West, i.e. western Europe and North America become the dominant economic and political force in the world and some other region hold that role.  It is interesting in the seven years since the book was published that the West's dominance no longer seems to supreme and it is pretty easy to envisage the kind of Sinocentric world that they feature as an example at the start of the book.

In this posting, however, I am not going to look at the specific counter-factuals discussed in the book, but at the extended essay which outlines the principles on which the editors asked contributors to use when producing their various chapters.  The editors are social scientists rather than novelists and so the book whilst owing a lot to other what if? collections I discuss, has an approach which is far more academically based even than the counter-factual collections by renowned academics such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts.  Back in 1982, Nelson Polsby edited, 'What If? Explorations in Social-Science Fiction'.  Whilst this attempted to approach counter-factual from a more rigorously social science approach, Polsby was insufficiently strict with his contributors with a consequence that some of them fell into writing the kind of counter-factual which was explicitly self-serving, outlining sometimes very precise turns in history which they felt were vital for the USA's healthy development in the 1980s.  Some of the chapters were better than that, but others were too explicitly distorted by contemporary concerns to allow them to be engaging. 

Given there have been few attempts at rigour in counter-factual writing, what has surprised me is that the Tetlock-Lebow-Parker method has not been adopted more widely, perhaps because it seems rather too dry for commercially-focused books though it does not seem vastly different, for example, to the political counter-factual collections that have included Duncan Brack as editor, which I will review in January 2012.  Perhaps the rigour the editors demand means that the playful or self-serving elements of writing counter-factual analysis which draws many authors and historians is eliminated, so is discarded.

Since the demise of the BBC counter-factual discussion board I have not been a contributor to any other groups on a regular basis, so I confess I may have been missing out on the
discussion of this methodology, but I cannot say it jumps out at you as I dip into counter-factual groups so I thought a quick summary might not go amiss for those thinking of producing counter-factuals.  As I have discussed with one commentator to this blog recently, this is not an academic site, but even I think there may be some things I will do differently in looking at counter-factual scenarios by being aware of the Tetlock-Lebow-Parker method.

The editors do a good summary of the broad trends of counter-factual writing as it stood in the mid-2000s a time of a high level of publication of this kind of book.  They characterise the triumphalist right-wing writers and the 'bad loser' left-wing writers.  I do wonder if more counter-factuals come from the right because of their stronger faith in the 'great men' of history and possibly for the left a sympathy for Marxist determinism and even for the Whiggish history attitudes which informed the labour movement, with their sense that 'things can only get better', but also that somehow the Western industrialised model was at least in need of tempering if not completely flawed.  There is an interesting chapter at the start of the book about the critics of counter-factual approaches, notably E.H. Carr and Richard Evans.  Both are strong historians, the latter more so than the former and both disparage counter-factual approaches.  However, as the editors show, Carr in particular, kept on falling into counter-factual statements on many occasions in his writing, often provoked by the fact that in his life his preferences were to appease first Hitler and then Stalin, with all the consequences that such policies led to.

The editors also outline how commonplace counter-factual thinking is in our everyday life and why we are all what if? historians.  They give both a philosophical (through the principles of the Polya urn game) and a psychological grounding to the use of counter-factual analysis, showing that after initial unpredictability there is a steady increase in inflexibility of options and the potential for inefficiency, i.e. that the alternate path may lead to a world which is 'worse' on the basis of how our culture addresses a 'good' society.  The editors are not keen on cultural relativity but need to see that how we judge whether an envisaged outcome is 'good' or 'bad' is from a cultural perspective.  Many historians see the development of technology in the 20th century as a 'good' thing as it has made the lives of millions longer and more comfortable, but those seeing such development from a Green perspective could argue that such technology has irrevocably damaged the planet and has led to the starvation of millions, so a 'bad' outcome.  Imagine that we were ardent Maoists, then even the starvation of millions of people in famines and loyalty to a dictator in a Communist state could be perceived as a 'good' outcome if it was spread across the world, just in the way that most Western commentators would see the sacrifice of those who died fighting Nazi Germany in the Second World War and the fact that the US public had the freedom to elect George W. Bush as a 'good' outcome.  Anyway, the editors are correct, that counter-factuals do allow us to see worlds that are, in our view and many of those we live amongst, as more benign or malign than our own.  Of course, not to become too post-modern, but whether we see our world as malign or benign depends greatly on whether you are a Wall Street banker discussing such issues from your penthouse apartment or someone waiting for food aid in an Ethiopian village.

In terms of 'rules' for counter-factual analysis the editors begin with two principles.  The first is the 'framing postulate'.  They have the factual framing: 'when did the actual outcome become irreversable?' and the counter-factual: 'at what point did x outcomes become impossible?'  In terms of logic there is minimal difference, but as they show, psychologically that these two 'framings' of the counter-factual analysis can trigger different approaches to the analysis.  Though they do not take this step, I would argue that there is a further level, between asking 'why did the world not turn out as x' can differ from the comparative, 'why did the world become x rather than y'.  , with the former pandering both to the triumphalist and the bad loser tendencies, i.e. that each has a gripe about the established system,  Of course, the first approach is the one most used by counter-factual novelists.

Unlike me, the editors move on to the hindsight bias postulate, i.e. that there was no alternative but for events to turn out the way that they did.  Of course, this is a common perspective of those who do not read history and can lead them to even question the point of studying history.  Those with an interest in history know that rarely is anything 'inevitable' and in fact our views of 'what really happened' are constantly changing around any given incident in history, reflecting both our own context and more data coming to light through research and archaeology.  They give good examples of people needing to be alert to hindsight bias drawing on an example of the Northern Ireland Troubles and taking a warning from analysis of the 11th September 2001 attacks in the USA that the 'brightness' of an event can throw into shadow (or in fact completely conceal) any alternate paths that could have been taken.

The editors also note how easy it is to reach a situation in which to even question whether there could have been alternate paths (or in fact there were but the history of these has been lost/hidden) becomes something that is too offensive to too many people to allow even discussion of it.  I have even encountered this in terms of historical accounts of the Great Unrest of 1910-11, which have been denied as being fictional because our view of the 'golden age' of the pre-1914 era is so bright it encourages people to see any alternative perspectives on that time as false and worthy of vigorous challenge.  If this applies to events that were real and documented, then you can see how much easier it is to censure counter-factual analysis.

The editors counter the attacks that Carr and others had laid at the door of counter-factual analysis, dismissing it as nothing but a 'game'.  They see it as arbitrary because writers light on some particular event to analyse often with a desired outcome in mind and then ignoring that subsequent events could have 'corrected' the alteration.  In fact, personally, as do some of the writers in this book, I enjoy realising that the change would not have been that great and finding myself getting back on track with the history we knew in this world.  This happens in the 'Resilient West' chapter by Barry Strauss in that a defeat for the Greek allied force at Salamis in 480 BCE does not ultimately lead to any radical change in the modern world due to later 'corrector' events.

The next charge is that counter-factual is uselessly speculative as none of the propositions can be tested except in the imagination.  Saying this it is typical for people writing counter-factual to look at comparative examples to give weight to the line they are proposing.  Of course, much counter-factual fiction deliberately follows that path for the simple pleasure of the intellectual challenge.  However, there is nothing wrong with historians as diverse as Niall Ferguson and Winston Churchill engaging in such activities, especially if they categorise different writings whether factual or counter-factual for what they are, i.e. a historical account/an intellectual exercise/fiction and academic/popular.  Much the same can be said for a great deal of military history.

The third charge against counter-factual writing is that it is self-serving.  I have noted before how US counter-factual writers of the past decade have often used the genre to make political points about the current context.  However, this charge can be laid on factual historical, economic and political analysis, such as books on the British empire or indeed Niall Ferguson's factual programme, 'Civilisation' explaining the dominance of the West, pointing a select range of 'killer apps' some of which I have critiqued here before as being, in my mind, not suitable.

The Tetlock-Lebow-Parker Rules for Rigorous Counter-Factual Exercises
Having covered all the issues in far greater depth and with excellent examples, the editors finally come to some rules which they insisted all contributors adhere to when writing for the book.

Procedural Request 1: Address the 'Arbitrariness' Critique
The contributors were asked to outline why they had selected a particular point in history.  In additional they are to adhere to the 'minimal rewrite' approach rather than 'miracle' changes.  This was the approach I heard Eric Hobsbawn advocate at a lecture back in the 1990s.  People are wrong to say Hobsbawn with his Marxist background does not use counter-factual tools, he is simply as rigorous with them as the editors, eschewing different weather on the day of a battle and only accepting different decisions made by people on the basis of the information they had available at the time, so countering the hindsight bias as well.  In this book, the contributors actually focus on circumstances that were 'odd' for the norms of the time, and so on a likelihood basis, the alternative at the time would have seen much more the feasible path for history to take.

Procedural Request 2: Address the Objection that Counter-Factual History is Hopelessly Speculative
As the editors note, it is impossible to eliminate all speculation (this goes for factual history too), so what they ask is that the contributors are explicit about the connecting principles used to reach the conclusions that they make in their chapters.  The contributors have also tended to stick to widely accepted historical details and 'regularities'; to well-established statistical generalisations and to accepted laws of cause and effect from biology, physics and social sciences (and one could add historical study, if they do not see that as a branch of the social sciences, which is something still up for debate).  Overall, the probability of the outcome 'almost always less than, the probability of the weakest link in the chain of events'.

Procedural Request 3: Address the Objection that Counter-factual Thought Experiments are Hopelessly Self-Serving
Contributors were advised to be explicit about the benefits of using counter-factual analysis on the element of history they were looking at and note those schools of thought who might be irritated/annoyed/angered/infuriated by the presentation of the counter-factual scenario.  The editors see this as valuable in exposing the gaps in currently accepted analysis of particular events and developments and shining light on history.

The work of Tetlock, Lebow and Parker really brings home the value of counter-factual analysis which I have highlighted here before:  I applaud them for presenting rules that should allow counter-factual analysis to enter the mainstream of history providing tools which can be used in an academic way alongside other more established ones.  However, given how much time has past, I do wonder if the opposition to counter-factual from historians who pretend not to use it, but often do, has killed the project.  I hope by summarising the Tetlock-Lebow-Parker method that others may see it as valuable and put it to use.

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