Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Main Thing You Need To Know About Knowing History & Knowing People


I have a coin in my hand; on one side should be heads (H) and on the other side should be tails (T). I just spun my coin ten times - it returned H,H,H,H,H,H,H,H,H,H - ten heads in a row. Do you think I have a double-headed or weighted coin? One way to enquire is to ask, what are the chances of my throwing ten heads in a row?  Quite slim actually, it is (1/2)^10. That translates as one in two to the power of ten, which equals a 1 in 1024 chance.  Before you conclude that my coin was not a fair coin, let me say that I omitted some vital information - I actually spun my coin more than ten times and I returned a few tails as well. Amongst the H,H,H,H were a few Ts - but I deliberately didn't tell you about those, leaving you with the impression that I might have had a straight off 1 in 1024 experience. 

Here’s the moral of the story. When we cherry pick data and leave out parts we don't want others to see we can easily give the impression of something compelling or noteworthy or unique. For years drug trials were known to be biased - medical companies would share the findings that support the drug's efficacy and omit the findings that call it into question. The same is true of our perception of the aberrations in various collective environments, as media reporters or historical interpreters often capture an extreme situation and exaggerate it out of proportion. A few Middle Eastern dissidents caught on camera burning a flag in the marketplace can be made to look as though the whole city is in civil unrest; an instance of corporate malfeasance or ignominy or sexual perversion can make it seem like the whole corporation or political group or religion is corrupt; a few isolated incidents of perversion of justice in the police force can make one question whether many police officers can be trusted; and a reputed group of inquisitors or anti-science dogmatists or heretic hunters can sometimes be felt to be representative rather than unrepresentative of a group in some point in historical time.

Given this pervasive problem of getting things out of proportion, or focusing too much on headline-grabbing cases, it’s clear that caution must be exercised when interpreting history, particularly as so much of history is written by those in power and those on the winning side. If you'd like an analogy of what recorded human history is like, it's a bit like the fossil record across vast geological time, and the evolutionary relationships between taxa, in that it very much resembles a join the dots exercise. Most of human history is not recorded, just as most of biological evolution is not found in the fossil record. Our framework of understanding is based on extrapolations of comparably sparse data, like a few dots scattered on the page, and from which we attempt to join those dots to give exhibition to a fuller picture.  

The really interesting question, I think, is to ask; what does it mean to live in a world in which most of the events, thoughts and feelings that have ever happened are inaccessible to just about everyone who has ever lived? Is it just a trivial fact of life that that is how things are, or does it give us cause to think a bit more deeply about the security of our knowledge and views?

Human beings speak with much confidence on many subjects – but I think our epistemology is more anaemic than we care to realise. Most knowledge a person has outside of their own first-person sphere is far more tentative than many would care to admit. What knowledge of human history amounts to is a set of neatly packaged general assumptions that attempt to present a fact or an opinion by shaving off a great deal of the additional data that surrounds it. 

Take the following events; Nero’s death, the Council of Nicea, the book Beowulf, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the Enlightenment, Diderot's Encyclop├ędie, the Scientific Revolution, Romanticism, World War 2, the film On The Waterfront and the London 7/7 bombings. What they have in common is that if you take all the recorded facts known about each of those events you are still devoid of a far greater proportion of unrecorded facts or experiences, whether in people’s minds or in surrounding events. It is only when we shave off or never become aware of a great deal of the additional data, either by not knowing it or by rendering it extraneous, that we have any simplified version of history at all. This really ought to inform us not just about how we engage with history, but most importantly, how we let our historical perceptions shape our present interpretation of things. 

Don’t misunderstand; often our interpretations of events like the ones above are reliable enough, or sufficiently well researched (if not by us, by others) to reveal clarity-inducing knowledge – but often an oversimplification leads one into too narrow a perspective that skews one’s outlook. Pick up any semi-academic magazine – The Spectator, History Today, The Economist or The New Scientist - and it will be replete with instances of this. Dip in to almost any page and you’ll find sentences that contain expressions like…

“The stone age period was a time of…”

“The inquisitors subjected people to forced conversion…”

“The Labour leader is trying to bring back socialism…”

“15th century Islam was more about conquering than converting…”

Iran is a very unstable country…”

“Throughout the 2nd World War the Axis powers…"

These and many more like them are examples of what I’m talking about – the expressions tend to over-simplify a series of events and are presented as neatly packaged general assumptions that demand further investigation.

Now, let’s be fair, I think such expressions are perfectly permissible within the realms of intelligent discourse – but they must always come with the caveat that they are a compressed version of a much bigger thing, and that the content is unavoidably anaemic.

In the spirit of fairness it has to be said we don’t have much of a choice when dealing with such subjects. These pale complexion examples of presentation are not easily avoided, because we are forced to resort to such anaemic language if we are to have any meaningful discussions - after all, when talking about history, society, religion, or any of the more intractable subjects, most of the data is unrecorded, inaccessible, and patchy, and thus beyond the purview of our own first–person comprehension of the situation. Our limitations compel us to engage in those aforementioned join-the-dots type of picture-making.

For that reason, it doesn’t mean that the way we tackle complex subjects is not meaningful and that it lacks practical utility – but it should be realised that we only handle these subjects with wisdom when we realise that many historical opinions we hold are mere epigrams that leave out the majority of the full picture. We make statements about various religions and political groups in certain periods of time in history as though we are only talking about a few people; we speak of a nation of millions of people as though the description is amenable to straightforward epigrammatic adjectival terms – terms like “oppressive”, “backward”, “liberated”, “draconian”, “prosperous”.

We all do it; we talk of North Korea as being ‘oppressive’, or of America as being ‘liberated’, or of China, Brazil and India as being 'increasingly prosperous’ – and those succinct descriptions serve to convey our perception of them. But if we are being strict - how can a nation of people be any of these things?  It can’t – a nation is too large, complex, diverse and multi-faceted to be amenable to such singular descriptions. Similarly, you’ll see this candid examination cropping up all over the political sphere too; how can a political party be “progressive”, or “right wing”, or “liberal” except in terms which severely comprise the vastness of the subject or object of study under scrutiny? 

In saying all that, one can of course also recognise a sense in which ‘oppressive’ does aptly describe Iran, and “liberal” aptly describes facets of a political party. The point is, it’s ok – that’s what we humans do. There’s no harm in doing it, so long as we are able to see a picture that extends beyond our compressed descriptions.  

A similar thing applies to an interpretation of people
Clearly we find the same thing occurring when describing people too. How easily we try to reduce a person to a few simple adjectives – happy, generous and kind, or mean, uncaring and pessimistic, or moody, discontent and dismissive – or combinations of all these things.  But that’s sometimes fine too – there are some people for whom the words ‘kind’ and ‘generous’ are apt compliments, and arguably some for whom terms like 'wretched' and 'insane' paint a pretty accurate picture too.

All we must always be aware of is that when we have views, opinions and beliefs, we are shaving off lots of external factors, and that much of what we intuitively feel about a belief system, a nation, or a person, is merely an intuitive focal point on which we have chosen to concentrate our gaze. This is part of our adaptive unconscious, and it requires the short-cutting of lots of key data to enable the mind to harbour succinct ideas about the world (as per the image of the join-the dots epistemology). 

Such is human personality, of course, that even if you were to focus on just one person you know – a neighbour or a work colleague or a friend – you could not justifiably reduce them to a few dozen simple statistics. To get anywhere near to ‘knowing’ that person you would have to spend a considerable length of time with them; you would have to see them happy, sad, at ease, ill at ease, under pressure, vulnerable, confident, upbeat, dejected, successful, unsuccessful, in mourning, pursuing intelligence, in the company of many different people, and in and out of their comfort zone. And even if we grant that that can happen over several months or years – you know as well as I do how much a person changes throughout their life – so even that level of scrutiny tells only a fraction of the picture. You have, I imagine, had situations where you’ve peered into a corner of someone’s life and felt a sudden acceleration of awareness about their character – perhaps from seeing their book collection for the first time, or seeing them with their parents or children for the first time, or seeing them lose their temper for the first time, or seeing them get drunk for the first time. There are obvious tell-tale signs that help us put people’s views into perspective – but they are not the full picture.

If that is the case with just one person – you can, I hope, now see (if you couldn’t already) how foolish it is to think you know enough about a person or group of people or a nation or a historical epoch from just a few quotes or articles or books about them by people who never met the individuals in question, or people who did but were, as we all are, selective in what they recorded.

Always be on guard
Be careful out there; so many people rashly think they have nailed a subject, or they hastily develop a worldview based on a few isolated and often decontextualised bits of information. It may be the best we can do with the tools we have, and that is fine, so long as we show epistemic humility when dealing with knotty subjects that require plenty of untangling. One of the key steps to wisdom is to understand that we must always hold views and profess knowledge with it in mind that most subjects outside of our realm of first-person experience are hugely intractable, and that our knowledge of those subjects is sparse and fragmented. 

Finally, you may now be wondering, if what I've said is the case, how can we justifiably hold religious beliefs, political views and other ideas containing complex data? We can hold them, but we must do so with our old friend epistemic humility. Part of that epistemic humility is in admitting that we are only doing what the psychologists call ‘thin-slicing’ – which is the ability to find patterns and formulate tentative knowledge based on only ‘thin slices’ of experiences.  When we assess a situation and say that Iran is unstable or that North Korea is totalitarian or Britain is too liberalised, we are attempting to compress the data into a succinct form of expression – but at an accelerated and exaggerated rate. We end up with what we feel is a fairly sophisticated judgement of something far more complex than our precipitations have accounted for.

The reason complex situations can be decoded with some aplomb is, I think, down to the fact that once we package a lot of data together we find that the sociological world has stable patterns. Hence, one can read about a country (or better still visit it) and use words like ‘unstable’, ‘totalitarian’ and ‘liberalised’ as pattern distillations that aid us in forming an compressed impression of complex situations. Realising we do this all the time is not just one of the first steps to wisdom, it is one of the first steps to correcting many of the faults that stand in the way of the clear thinking that engenders wisdom.

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