Monday, October 11, 2010

Reasoning from Historical Analogies

In her talk at Canada's International Development Research Center, Margaret MacMillan (the author of Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History) states that reasoning from historical analogies can be very helpful in making policy decisions, but that reasoning from the wrong analogy has sometimes led policy makers into very bad decisions. She gives an example (the Vietnam decisions by the U.S. administration in the Kennedy administration) in which vigorous debate on the appropriate analogy led to use of the wrong analogy over what in retrospect seems a better analogy.

How then should one use historical analogies in making policy decisions. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make a conscious effort to search for a significant number of alternative analogous situations, don't simply accept the first analogy that comes to mind (avoid an "availability bias").
  • Define explicitly the relevant aspects of the current and historical situation which are analogous and those which are different.
  • Recognize that the first step mentioned above requires a serious understanding of history
  • Recognize the the second step mentioned above requires a serious understanding of the nature of the current problem and of each and every one of the analogous situations.
  • Consider in depth several alternative analogous situations and the lessons that they bring. Ideally, seek to compare analogies that offer conflicting lessons.
  • Use the lessons of decision making to assure that there is a full discussion and that analogies favored by low status members of the policy team are as fully considered as those favored by high status members.
  • Recognize that policy is incremental and that policy decisions can be adjusted or reversed with experience; therefore reexamine the analogies used in initial policy decisions, updating them with experience with the current policy.
  • Don't give too much credence to any analogy!

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