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What if history really isn’t any guide?

In a past life, I used to be a historian. Or at least, a historian-in-training (I bailed on a PhD). I spent ten years at two good schools reading dead languages and writing papers, and in one of my seminars a professor said something that has stuck with me ever since (I’m paraphrasing): “there are two types of thinkers: lumpers and dividers.”

What she meant was, some people (lumpers) spend most of their time arguing that two seemingly disparate things are actually alike, while others (dividers) tend to argue that these two things that look alike are actually very different.

This insight isn’t all that novel — in Plato’s Timaeus, the universe is laid out on the axes of “same” and “different.” But it is useful, and I recall it every time I get into a lumper vs. divider fight with a practicing historian over a current political issue — the historian is usually trying to win an argument by analogy with the past (lumping), while I’m on the other side of the table pounding my fist that this new thing is very different from that old thing and the attempted historical analogy is just plain wrong.

I’m now having more and more of these arguments around the topic of the pandemic, as different kinds of thinkers begin to tackle it with the tools they have at hand. For historians, the main tool is the historical analogy. And the results are a kind of master class in how to royally screw this up.

Here’s an example of an historian-in-training (at an institution I spent five years at, no less!) doing some misguided lumping:

https://twitter.com/JakeAnbinder/status/1260638843364995072

I did a short Twitter thread (https://twitter.com/jonst0kes/status/1260961277033185281) in response to the above, but I’d like to come at it from a different angle, here.

There’s a trap that historical lumpers so often fall into, not just with the pandemic, but whenever they try to bigfoot everyone in a current events debate by jumping in with their 10,000-foot historical perspective.

Lumping together two historical events/groups/trends that are both in the past can work because there are agreed-upon boundaries for the two historical things. In other words, because in the process of writing a “history” of things X and Y, historians have drawn some temporal and social boundaries around X and Y in order to “construct” (*gag*) them as objects of historical inquiry. (I can’t believe I just wrote that but whatever.)

Where historians get into trouble is when they try to lump together an historical event with an event that’s still unfolding and is open-ended, where it’s impossible to draw the necessary hindsight boundaries needed to make the analogy truly work. This is especially treacherous when historians undertake to make predictions about the future based on a historical analogy.

But as fraught as the practice of predicting the future based on analogy with the past is, the whole thing comes completely and hopelessly unglued when you’re trying to do the historical analogy thing with a pandemic.

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The act of constructing an object of historical study out of events of the past — of drawing a circle around a collection of things that happened, and saying “this is all connected, and I’m giving it a name and telling you how it worked” (i.e. “lumping”) is what the kids these days would call a powermove (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Powermove).

And the act of taking someone else’s historical object and whacking it until it cracks apart and then reassembling the pieces into two or more different historical objects (i.e. “dividing”) is also a powermove.

The sport of making an historical object, and then rallying your camp to defend it, king-of-the-hill-style, while some other faction within your guild tries to smash it to pieces in order to create their own object out of the same material, is “history.”

When historians bring these powermoves into the area of a live political debate, they’re deliberately trying to shape the debate and the eventual historical outcome. It’s an overt attempt to intervene and steer the unfolding of events by means of analogy. In this respect, they’re taking a strategy that works for the status game they’re playing inside their guild, and trying to juke current events with it. Sometimes that works really effectively, and sometimes it doesn’t.

But a pandemic is not a purely political issue that you can intervene in and steer. Sure, it has massive political ramifications, and politics definitely affect how it unfolds in a particular geography. But in between the forces of political cause and political effect is a novel pathogen with a mind of its own, and that novel pathogen gets the final say in how the pandemic unfolds.

So while the pandemic comes wrapped in a thick cloud of politics, the novel pathogen at its heart is a force of nature, and that force of nature does not even see any of the human social constructions that are so real to you and I, much less respect them. It just burns through every clan and faction and border and popular movement and historical moment, with zero regard for what came before or what will come after. Your rhetorical powermoves have no effect on it. It doesn’t know they’re there.

It’s also important to remember that the novel pathogen is novel. We have never faced this particular threat before, which means that “long-lasting changes to important aspects of the human condition” are very much out there in the unmapped space of possible futures that will unfold from what’s happening right now.

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There is actually a family of useful historical analogies that can help guide our response to the novel pathogen. That family of analogies is the very epidemiological models that are the subject of so much present debate.

But these models-as-analogies don’t function quite the same way as the analogies that even politically engaged historians make. They aren’t powermoves in either an intra-guild status contest or a current political fight — or at least, they’re not supposed to be such.

When used properly, epidemiological models are tools for exploring and reasoning about the space of possibilities by testing different input parameters. Like all good historical analogies the best ones are deeply rooted in a high-quality grasp of the details and minutia of historical precedent — in this case, R values, fatality rates of various flavors, test positivity rates, curves, and all the other parameters underlie each model.

But to take these models as straight-forward predictions, or even worse to mistake them for political interventions or to make them stakes in a tribal political fight, to abuse and misuse them.

It’s also wrong to do the opposite — to take your facility with creating forward-looking historical analogies that only really work as powermoves in a present political debate, and turn it to the task of actually modeling out the space of possibilities for the epidemic.

Let me put all this a different way:

  • The point of an epidemiological model is to act as a sandbox where we can test different input parameters and visuals what their effects might be on the next few weeks’ development of the pandemic.
  • The point of a historical analogy is that it’s a powermove that’s meant to influence a present social dynamic.

So if you are trying to predict what will happen with the SARS-COV-2 pandemic based on a historical analogy with the 1918 Spanish Flu, or the Great Depression, or the Great Recession of 2008, you’ve gotten the above all twisted and are just going to end up playing yourself. This is not that, and your attempt to lump this with that is far more likely to confuse more than it is to clarify.

First, just look around at the vastly different outcomes that different countries are seeing with this pandemic, and then think about that the US of 1918 is a different country than the US of 2020. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” goes the quote.

Second, and more importantly, SARS-COV-2 is a brand new virus from a totally different family than the 1918 influenza. Again, the qualities of this novel pathogen — both the qualties it has right now and the qualities it will develop as it moves in and sets up shop in the human population — will govern the course of this event. The virus gets a vote in all this, and we have no idea what it will do next.

A properly used epidemiological model takes full account of the virus’s agency — to plug in different parameters for R0 and IFR and see what happens is to account for the fact that the virus can behave in different ways in different places. The strength of modeling as an exercise is that it gives you a framework for exploring the question of “what if the virus does, or what if it does that?”. It does not predict what the virus will do next, because that is impossible.

I think historians, investors, and everyone else who’s trying to answer the question of “what’s next” in a systematic way can learn from epidemiologists: don’t predict, just model.

Predicting is saying what’s about to happen. Modeling is constructing a little device that lets you play with different inputs and explore what might happen if the virus + human system does this or that thing.

So don’t get honeypotted into lumping a past even with the present outbreak in order to make a prediction. Just stick to a plain old model, where you can fiddle with the inputs and watch the outputs change.

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  • Comments (8)

    • 5

      I’m not sure what point I’m hoping to make here, but I found the post interesting.  At the risk of going off on a poorly informed tangent, here is my take:

      History is useful for building models, it’s also useful for seeing when and how those models fail.  Much of my historical context is a mix or oral-lived history and probably an inadequate education but what I find most interesting is how people and society adapt and accept “new normals.”

      My oral-lived history includes my grandmother who grew up on a rural farm without electricity, my Father who “built” bomb shelters for play as a child of the cold war, and my own experience through the teenaged-years of the information age.  Ignore the whole “rate of change” thing and just consider how fast you personally accept something as “normal” (or in some cases refuse to accept that things have changed).

      I went from a feature phone to a late-model smart phone to a top-of-the line smart phone over 2.5 years, and yet work with people who think it’s “weird” that I dial numbers for conference lines instead of just clicking the link on an invite (I’m in my mid-30s even! I started clicking the links when I learned i could still use my phone and it would call me…).

      Back to the original point, I’m less interested in if “things are changed forever” or if we’re “going back to normal” because “normal” has always been a moving subjective target (similar to your comment about the past being a “foriegn country” – I’m just suggesting that ‘foriegn country’ is metaphorically Canada and that it’s not so far away and not so totally alien).

      So for example: mask culture, is that going to be a permanent thing during cold and flu season?  If it is, is that really the end of the world as we know it?  Telework and remote education were already happening, it just hit the gas though.  Local retail was already struggling with e-commerce.  These aren’t unexpected or unfamiliar types of change.

      I also like to humor extreme outcomes: Will this public health crisis be the end of the human race?  Probably not.  Will people suffer and die?  Yes.  It’s a question of numbers, we’re already up to (at least) 300k globally.  The difference between 300K vs 3 Million vs 30 million is the real question.  The smaller than number the more “familiar” the future will likely be. Second order impacts are important, but by their nature hard to predict (hence: The Prepared 😉 ). As I think you allude to, regardless of what happens, the future is coming whether you like it or not – it’s just a matter of how fast.

      • 3

        Thanks for this thoughtful reply!

        I personally think mask culture will catch on, because it will have to. Once people get their heads around the fact that mortality is not the only risk here — there are all kinds of weird morbidities that are cropping up that folks will want to avoid — their behavior will change.

    • 5

      Nice post Jon. Can you give a simple example that we might understand, outside of pandemics, where histories in the moment were saying “because of history, X will happen” but then X never happened because the parameters changed?

      One I often used when working on economic/innovation issues with the White House was about how past history is no longer a guide when it comes to automation and the loss of jobs.

      As a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I’d stand on stage and tell people “don’t worry, the robots aren’t taking your job. The guy who worked with horse shoes might have lost that job, but he evolved to work with tires instead.”

      It’s been true, from the beginning of history until recently, that technology improvements created more jobs and prosperity than they hurt.

      But that has caused people to NOT recognize that the facts on the ground now are different than they’ve been at any point in the past: Computers are now (or closely getting) to the point where they can realistically replace a human for a huge chunk of the routine jobs in our society. So the horse shoes to tires tradeoff won’t work as well as it has before.

      • 3

        I’ll need to ponder this some more, as I haven’t really been collecting examples of this specific thing. But what I was mostly reacting against was not failed predictions from historians, but more like interventions from historians in present debates that rely too much on historical analogy.

        The main historical analogy that’s extremely overburdened right now is civil rights — if you can frame up an analogy that puts a cause you support in the “civil rights activism” mold, then you can automatically paint your opponents as reactionary and bad, and you win by fiat.

        This happens on the left with all sorts of things, and the right has also gotten savvy about co-opting “civil rights” as a frame for arguing that one’s cause is on the right side of history.

        So the problem I had in mind was less the “horseless carriage” type of analogizing, but more along the lines of, “this social issue will play out the way I expect, because my side is on the right side of history as proven by this analogy that I’m making with The Movement.”

    • 3

      Jim Grant has writtten many wonderful histories of credit and equity markets in the 19th and 20th centuries. As he likes to say, “Financial history repeats, but not in such a literal fashion as to enrich financial historians.” I think the sentiment applies more generally when trying to relate the past to the present.

      I find the comparisons to the 1918 flu to be particularly unhelpful. Aside from the obvious differences in medical and biological technology, the overall character of the country is completely different. In 1918, ~40% of the nation farmed for a living, and the country was a low-debt, small-government affair. 100 years later, not one in a hundred of us could feed himself on an ongoing basis. And of course government has become a 20%-of-GDP behemoth, preciously perched on an ocean of debt and future promises that can never be kept.

      • 3

        While I agree with your thoughtful comment, I do think there have been some minor benefits to the 1918 comparisons. For example, helping people understand that something similar to this can hit one winter, seem to abate, then come roaring back. Not for predictions sake, but to at least help people admit “that’s possible.”

      • 2

        Sure, when it comes to the possible dynamics of the pandemic itself, I expect there is a lot to be learned from 1918. I was thinking more about the social, economic, and political impacts on the USA. In those areas, we are just to too different for useful analogies, I think.

    • 2

      I’ve been reading Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, which is about this very thing. Much of his work focuses on what he calls “black swan” events that you can’t predict but change everything, like 9/11 or this pandemic. He talks about his upbringing in Lebanon which descended from an open, tolerant country into a warzone, and much of what happened in Lebanon is recognizable in the United States today, like people becoming more tribal.

      His proposed solution to the black swan problem is developing anti-fragile systems that are not only resilient, but thrive in chaos and uncertainty. I’m not very far into the book, but I’m eager to learn more about his thoughts about this since I think it could be a benefit to my own prepping.