For the past few weeks I have been reading Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize Winning Economist/psychologist. While every few pages contain a revelation that will blow your mind (sorry), what has interested me most is the research he has done on cause and effect, and the human minds understanding of this process. We see a broken window; we see a group of children dressed for a sporting activity on a field of glass nearby staring at it, mouths open, frozen to the spot. The brain subconsciously puts all this together in a story in the mind: the kids were playing some game; the ball (or whatever) spun wildly into the window, and broke it. More than likely this is the case, but of course many other things could have broken that window. This is a simple example, and the brain is very good at instantaneously locating the cause of a simple event like this that has just occurred, as it was necessary at an evolutionary level. You hear a tree branch crack in the forest: something caused this, it more than likely is not something good. At the very least, stop moving until you know more.
These non-complex examples are usually very explainable by simple cause-and-effect, but human society has evolved a lot faster than the human brain, and our minds on a daily basis must comprehend events that have multiple interweaving causes. These could be major societal events such as the Arab Spring or the Summer of Love. Kahneman argues that above all else, when explaining the past the human mind seeks confidence in coherence. Coherence means how well the explanation fits in to the event it describes, while confidence refers to whether this explanation tells the best story of what it describes. There is nothing new here, but what Kahneman showed through years of experiments is that the human mind is completely untrustworthy at determining which of these causal explanations is the best. In fact, all of his research points to the conclusion that confidence in coherence (the way we explain major events) works best when we have hardly any information about the event. We want the simple story, like the kids breaking the window. We know nothing about what was happening on the other side of the window, or indeed in front of it, but the automatic hypothesis fits very well. With more complex events like the fall of the Soviet Union, experts see the event and look back, then pick and choose the most coherent explanation of what caused this. To skip to the end, the logical conclusion of Kahneman’s argument is that social events cannot be explained by cause-and-effect at all. They are explained by hindsight.
Everything makes sense in hindsight. Watching news coverage of the BP Oil spill in May 2010, one would think that everyone working at BP was completely incompetent, that from what they did, an oil spill of magnitude was absolutely inevitable. Reports claim that they didn’t have enough people working, their safety checks should have been more frequent, a backup valve to the backup valve should have been installed (thank you, Captain Hindsight). So the BP Oil Spill was down to human error, which was easily avoidable, but due to these errors the spill was absolutely inevitable. This is a coherent story given to us by the media, in order for us to make sense of a very complex and somewhat random event that occurred, and could have occurred on any oil rig anywhere in the world. It makes sense to us in hindsight: we can study exactly what went wrong, and who was to blame, but beforehand if a statistician were to work out the probability of such a sequence of events occurring, the odds would be astronomical. We were all told a story of cause-and-effect, and it is reassuring to think that disasters are preventable and predictable, but really all that was learned from this event was how to somewhat minimise the effects of an oil spill at the BP Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon that must occur no later than 10pm on April 20, 2010. This story is much more comforting than the realisation that most things in this world are completely out of our control.
Another famous piece of hindsight was the revelation that in summer 2001, George W. Bush was given a briefing report, warning of a terrorist attack on US soil in the near future. This brings out the Captain Hindsight in everyone, I think. “What if he had just acted on this intelligence?”. In the academic study of history, this is known as contingency, and it is very closely related to hindsight. Contingency is all about the “what ifs?” of history. What if you could kill Hitler when he was a child? What if Franz Ferdinand was not shot in Sarajevo? What if Columbus never crossed the Atlantic Ocean? It is fascinating for us to think that major world events could be prevented simply by altering the actions of one individual actor. Historians call this the “Great Man Theory”, the idea that one person can change the course of history. We were all taught this version of history in school because it is the simplest way to explain complex social movements and events. A great man did something, it had an effect, and that was what happened. This is certainly a lot easier than explaining dynastic politics in various regions of an empire, combined with rising social pressure as a result of food scarcity due to a bad winter, one year. What is interesting about historians is that unlike the social sciences, they make no attempt to use what they have learned from one event in order to explain another, or to predict what may happen. They alone accept that they are but documenters of hindsight.
I was reading about Kahneman’s research on cause-and-effect last Friday, and then I got thinking. In the case of an event of which there is limited evidence, then every coherent causal explanation of this event is as valid as another. I had a gap in my memory from the previous weekend, and all to show for it was a lost phone, a receipt, and a bottle of Fanta. Based on this evidence, I constructed a coherent (to myself, anyway) story which I have more confidence in than any other I have been presented with. Therefore, in essence, my previous post was a tribute to the possibilities of an active consciousness in interpreting the causes of past events. That, and a fitting eulogy to my fallen friend; the black HTC with the cracked screen. There is nothing sinister behind the simplification of disasters, both natural and man-made, as well as the linearisation of historical events. Perhaps none of us would watch a news report that had no underlying story, with no villain, hero or outcome. It would be too unnerving to watch such a thing, as how could we get back to our day afterwards? Seeing disaster after disaster with no answers anywhere how to prevent any of them from happening. Coherence helps, but it’s our devout confidence in them that needs to be balanced.