Saturday, February 08, 2014

Further thoughts on reading John Lewis Gaddis

I am continuing to read John Lewis Gaddis' book subtitled "On How Historians Map the Past". As I understand him, he sees the historians job as creating narratives consisting of selected events from the past. He does not say so, but I think it is clear that he feels that the narrative should have an important point, one that perhaps may not have been recognized by the work's intended audience.

Like any story, a history will have a beginning and an end. Like any good story, a good history will not delve too deeply into detail, but the historian will carefully select the material from the past that illuminate his/her thesis and carry the reader through the narrative.

I think he believes that the nature of a historical text is that it focuses on something that happened (or as in the case of nuclear holocaust in Cold War, did not happen) and discuss "who, what, when, where, how and why". He sees such histories as complex, in which many interrelated factors are part of the process and influence the outcome or "structure" to be illuminated.

Historians choose among continuing situations and contingent events in writing their narratives. The ebb and flow of economic, military, soft and diplomatic power tend to be "continuous" in the sense that they tend to develop or deteriorate relatively slowly; thus such situations are relatively predictable. A drought-caused famine or other natural disaster less so.

Gaddis mentions that one function of a historical narrative is for the author to be convinced by that which he writes. A larger, perhaps secondary objective is that the narrative be found convincing by a wide audience -- something perhaps analogous to a scientific consensus forming around a new and important scientific result.

Gaddis is dismissive of social science writing that seeks to explain outcomes with one or at best a few "independent variables". I suspect he is wrong in this view, and that there are histories in which some elements are truly central. At the same time that the world was experiencing the Cold War, much of the world was eradicating polio. I think the history of the eradication of polio is a suitable topic for a historian. Certainly polio would not have been so successfully attacked had the polio vaccine not been created, and thus that is a critical element to the story. I recall being told by a key player in the creation of that vaccine that when called to a developing country that was having little success in its polio campaign, that his report consisted essentially of one statement: "for the campaign to succeed you have to put the vaccine in people". So the story of polio eradication might be just, how the vaccine came to be created (and produced) and how it came to be put into hundreds of millions of people.

Still, I very much agree that people act from varied and complex motives, and that their actions are inherently hard to predict. (Indeed, I think their stories to themselves as to why they acted in a certain way are often just that -- stories, rather than real explanations.) Since some peoples' decisions are very important in historical narratives, this introduces a complexity in history.

Gaddis makes some interesting points about historical narrative:
  • Historians are not good at forecasting, looking resolutely at the past. However, a good history may anticipate future events.
  • History is about particular generalizations. Gaddis might generalize about the impact of Stalinism in the USSR, or about the impact of the US-USSR bipolar power structure and the containment of communism, but he would not generalize to all countries and all power structures over all time.
  • History lends itself to simulation, but not to modelling. Perhaps an alternative description would be that simulation models are best used to explore the variety of behaviors that may occur in a complex situation, while deterministic models are useful for better understood and less complex situations. One would use a deterministic model to plot a space vehicle's interplanetary trajectory, while a simulation model might be useful to explore traffic behavior in an urban area.
He goes on to explore some of the parallels between historical analysis and analytic approaches that have gained some recent popular interest: self organizing systems, complexity theory, chaos theory. He might have looked also at stability theory as developed in engineering control theory. I think some of the ideas from these areas do have application to the historians work:
  • Emergent properties, from self organizing systems. An example: a colony of termites can build a mound meters high, providing a home for the colony with temperature control and food processing, without any of the ants "knowing" that that would emerge from the individual, genetically programmed behavior of the ants.
  • Sensitivity of some complex systems to initial conditions: Perhaps if Cleopatra's nose had been differently shaped, Julius Cesar and Marc Anthony would have behaved differently, and the western history would have changed. A small change can in some circumstances have a big effect.
  • Attractors: Sometimes when the behavior of a complex dynamic system appears to be unpredictable, it can be better understood as cycling though a path, perhaps with a complex trajectory, which is much less chaotic that it appears. Understanding the path may lead to insights as to how the behavior can be better controlled.
  • Control Theory: Engineers have learned that complex systems are sometimes unstable and sometimes stable. Corrective feedback can sometimes stabilize a system too prone to instability; the wrong kind of feed-forward can make a system more unstable.
This short book continues to be interesting and thought provoking.

Visual representation of a strange attractor (in variable space)

No comments: