My dog Otis loves to go outside but hates the rain. On a normal day, he bolts out of the door and into our backyard. On a rainy day, he bolts outside but freezes on the porch as soon as he senses nature’s cruel trick. His fear of wetness is crippling. For at least 24 hours post-storm he’ll be completely untrusting of going outside and his bolt will turn into me having to coax, drag, and often carry him outside. We’re picking on Otis, but we humans have the same problems with using history to predict the future and succeed in the present too.
In Alex Rosenberg’s How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, he explains how we mostly approach history in a narrative format, where we think of it as a series of events stitched together into a story we think makes sense. Otis’ most recent experience in going outside is his best predictor of the next time he’ll go outside, hence his post-storm anxiety. We’re all cause and effect collection machines. It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good either.
In his own way, Otis is good at history but bad at science. He learns from the (immediate) past but sucks at continuously testing his theory of the world. In Rosenberg’s book, he explains why humans have the capacity to be better than dogs at planning but still suffer from the same hardwired problems at grander scales. Take the expression about generals always fighting the last war. Just because we’ve collected the data doesn’t mean it’s predictive of the future. Narrative history and science will always differ in this way. History converges on communicability, science converges on repeatable, testable statements.
The lesson from Rosenberg, and to a lesser degree Otis, is to remember not to treat stories as science. Stories, and therefore history in the traditional sense, are primarily driven by our most basic perceptions. We socially/culturally/emotionally respond to the gravity of the time we got soaked in the rain before a big presentation, while we don’t socially/culturally/emotionally respond to the literal existence of gravity. It’s the way it is, we just have to be aware of it.
As we stumble forward into the future, our best bet is to keep asking questions. It’s OK to expect the future to rhyme with the past so long as we remember the limitations of the wetware between our ears. Remember, Otis’ hydrophobia is the equivalent of our hot take on politics, markets, marketing, etc. A good story will always sell, but we shouldn’t expect it to predict.