The Guessing Game

Recently, during a lunch-table conversation, a colleague told me the exact same thing that an old friend said a few months ago. I now have feedback from two different people that I can get outright condescending during discussions. A new character flaw perhaps. I knew that sometimes I get a bit aggressive during arguments but didn’t realize that it sounds insulting to others. Shall take corrective actions. No point in being an asshole, that too unintentionally.

Anyway, our conversation was on History. On how useful is learning history? Being a history buff, my colleague was positively convinced of the benefits of learning history. I was trying to argue otherwise.

To begin with, let me concede that there are some important reasons to learn history. History gives a perspective to the present. We often lack data to make informed decisions about the present. History provides us with this data. It normalizes our response to the present day situations. In the absence of any historical data, we would frequently over/under-estimate the importance of new situations in the present. Past historical events give us a sense of how important the present day events are.

Moreover, history informs us about the mistakes that people have made in the past and prevents us from repeating them again. It’s a neat catalog of all our failures and successes. It makes the process of discovery (scientific or otherwise) more efficient by telling us what pathways have already been tried and tested. A good enough reason to learn history, I suppose.

And yet, despite all these seemingly important functions of history, I somehow can’t let go of my skepticism whenever I come across a historical narrative. It’s hard for me to take any historical narrative at face value. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, there is a lot of interpolation and extrapolation involved in a historical analysis. In Science, these are well-justified methods of interpreting and analyzing data. But for these methods to be accurate, the size of the data-set should be large enough. This is usually not the case in historical analysis. Quite often, it’s the opposite. Most of the historical narratives have extrapolations (or interpolations) that any scientist would find very hard to justify.

While reading history, I often come across a full character sketch of a historical figure or a movie-like narration of an event based on what I would consider insufficient information. The historian, although well within his rights as a competent authority on the subject, fills in the gaps in information with his own imagination. This generates a very fundamental flaw in any historical analysis. One that of prejudice. As Will Durant puts it –

Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.

As I understand it, all history is essentially a lot of guess work by historians. Historians with their own prejudices. With their own likes and dislikes. With their own agendas. What these historians offer us is a small window to see the past. A window with a tinted glass. Tinted with their prejudice. This is why I am always skeptical of any historical analysis. It certainly makes for a very interesting reading, but at the end of the day, it’s just someone else’s opinion of the past.

You should understand how futile the pursuit of a bias-free history is.

One other point. We should be particularly careful about bias in Indian history. This is because most of the documentation of Indian history was done by British historians, who were in my view the perfect embodiment of phrase ‘historical bias’. So that’s that. Moving on.

The second problem with history is somewhat connected to the first one. It’s that the nature of the historical analysis is often linear. This is so because hindsight is linear. And history, after all, is essentially an exercise of analysis-in-hindsight. In history, we always have a fixed sequence of events – one as the causation of the next one. It’s not the fault of the historian to postulate history in a linear manner. It’s just the way the human mind works. We always try to simplify the cause and effect relationships of events around us. This makes them easy for us to understand. The human mind is not very good at multi-variate non-linear analysis. That’s why we need computers to do such stuff.

But the world is not linear. Not even by a long shot. The present is highly non-linear. There are a lot of things going on at the same time that affects everything around us. It is almost impossible to point out something specific as the only cause of an event. There are always more variables involved. We just select the most obvious ones or those which are easy for us to understand. And so do the historians. Based on the very limited information available to them, they try to come up with a reasonable model of the past. I don’t claim that their story is wrong, but it is definitely not complete.

In any scientific analysis, there are usually two kinds of unknowns. There are known unknowns and then there are unknown unknowns. Scientists often make assumptions to minimize the effects of known unknowns. But they don’t have any strategy to counter the effects of unknown unknowns. A good scientific theory or model is formulated in such a way that there is very little scope for these unknown unknowns. Historical analysis, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether.

The amount of information available to historians leaves a vast scope for these unknown unknowns. There are so many things you don’t know, and you don’t even know that you don’t know these things. Inception level confusion. I know. But you get the idea, right? So, I don’t understand the certainty with which historians back their claims. As if it’s the only gospel truth. To get a bit philosophical, there is no such thing as a historical truth. All of us, writers and readers of history, should always keep this in mind.

When I see people fighting over Nehru, Patel, Bose, and Gandhi, I am flabbergasted by the intensity of the arguments on both the sides. All believe that what they believe is the only truth. A complete certainty. With no scope for the others’ point of view. Opinions based on history should never be this strong. You simply don’t have enough information to be this certain.

In future, whenever you read a history book. Always be skeptical. Be critical. Enjoy the book. Learn whatever you can from it. Then put the book away. Never use it as a reference for your obstinate opinions. Never argue and fight with other people over such opinions. It’s just not worth it. Strong and obstinate opinions are good as long as they are backed by facts. Strong opinions based on fiction are just a recipe for disaster.

To end this post, I leave you with the wise words of Hugh Trevor-Roper –

History teaches us nothing except that something will happen.

Too strong a statement perhaps. But I can’t help in feeling that there is some element of truth in it.