Bryan Caplan  

Tetlock and Counter-factual History

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I've long been fond of counter-factual history.  Like: If Prinzip hadn't assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, North Korea wouldn't be a Communist dictatorship.  Or: If Lenin had died in early 1917, the Communists wouldn't have taken over Russia, and the Nazis probably wouldn't have taken over Germany. 

In many cases, I freely admit that counter-factual history is hard and hazy.  I make no confident claims about what the world would be like today if Christianity had never arisen.  In other cases, however, I think counter-factual history is pretty easy and clear - especially if we're only discussing the following decade or two rather than the entire subsequent history of mankind.  If Julius Caesar hadn't been assassinated in 44 B.C., it's very likely he would have remained the leader of the Roman Empire for another 5-10 years, and the civil war that followed his death would not have occurred.  Would the Roman Empire have lasted longer or shorter?  Beats me.

Question: How can I reconcile my qualified confidence in counter-factual history with my admiration for Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment?  Doesn't he expose such pontification as pure conceit? 

I think not.  Contrary to populist readers, Tetlock's work doesn't show that political experts don't know what they're talking about.  What it shows, rather, is that experts are overconfident on topics that are controversial among experts.  Tetlock freely admits that naive extrapolation of existing patterns is often highly predictive.  But he deliberately refrains from posing such questions to experts because they're too easy.  When designing his survey, Tetlock explicitly picked question to "Pass the 'don't bother me too often with dumb questions' test." 

When I make confident claims about counter-factual history, I'm normally doing this easy extrapolation.  If Prinzip hadn't killed the Austrian Archduke, it's very likely that Europe would have remained at peace for at least a few more years.  Sure, another international incident could have struck the very next day.  But international incidents shocking enough to spark major wars very rarely occur. 

Similarly, if Lenin had died in early 1917, we have strong specific evidence that his followers wouldn't have violently overthrown the Kerensky government.  Sure, another radical party could have tried Lenin's approach in his stead.  But events like Lenin's coup aren't just very rare in general.  They're so rare that I've studied this critical period in Russian history for decades without hearing about any other party that seriously pondered a Lenin-style coup against Kerensky.  Of course, given a few more decades, other horrific events might have ruined Russia, clouding long-run prediction.  But it's still probable that the Russian Civil War that followed World War I wouldn't have happened if Lenin had died the day Kerensky gained power.

In sum, while Tetlock's work does highlight serious pitfalls of counter-factual history, there's no reason to abandon the subject.  As long as you (a) explore what would have happened if potent-but-rare events had gone otherwise, (b) extrapolate from long-run trends, and (c) discuss short- to medium-run consequences, your efforts are not in vain.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Yaakov writes:

I have read that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was only an excuse for Germany to go out to war. I do not know how true that is, but it is worth exploring.

Shane L writes:

I have heard that Caesar was planning an invasion of Persia when he died. Considering Rome's conflicts with Persia would dog their relationship for many hundreds of years, eventually weakening both so traumatically that they could pose little opposition to the Muslim Arab invaders, perhaps a brilliant campaign by Caesar in conquering Persia could have had drastic consequences for world history.

And perhaps not :) Fun to speculate, though.

Sam writes:

If naive extrapolation of existing patterns was so easy, it would be a less profitable trading strategy on prediction markets like Inkling or Scicast.

I've found it to be a much less profitable trading strategy on prediction markets focusing on geopolitical events, because it tends to lead to a strategy of "selling volatility", which is crash-prone.

Grant Gould writes:

The force that brought Caesar to power and the force that hollowed out the empire were largely the same -- the emergence of the professional military as a deciding factor in internal political disputes. Caesar was a stop on the road leading from Marius to Alaric. So the question to ask on that one is not whether Caesar would have taken things on a different path (he wouldn't: the path Rome took after Caesar was Caesar's path anyway, only with a civil war inserted) but whether a more effective resistance than Antony and his nitwit conspirators would have emerged.

Given the general fecklessness of Roman conspirators (see, eg, Cataline) I would have to say no. Had Caesar lived, Rome would have followed the same path: Expansion of the empire, expansion of the military, contraction of the republican forms, political hollowing-out, ultimate implosion.

So we can keep celebrating the tyrannicides. I know I do.

More generally: if the forces that brought an event about were the same as those that brought about its consequences, the event was probably an arbitrary placeholder. Without that event, another would have occupied its place.

So without Prinzip, rampant nationalism would still have brought Europe to war: The later checks on nationalist war-making emerged only after and as a result of the war, and would not have appeared on time and prevented had the initial blast only waited a few years.

But without Lenin, the Communists probably would not have risen and a different post-Tsarist order would have emerged: The feudal misery of Russia did not lead naturally to communism, and that stream would have found a different path. Perhaps the Russians would have invented fascism before Mussolini!

Jon Gunnarsson writes:

Yaakov,
there is very little truth to that. It was Austria-Hungary who pushed for this war. Germany could very likely have prevented the war (though probably only at the cost of offending their only major reliable ally Austria-Hungary), so Germany certainly bears part of the blame for the outbreak of the war. But supporting your ally is quite different from starting a war on a pretence.

khodge writes:

The Foundation Trilogy is a massive exercise in counter-factual history. That is one of the reasons I find Prof Krugman's sycophants so funny when they refer to him as Seldon.

At exactly what point do we get to say that Lenin's or the Archduke's death are unique events that cause history to unwrap in a way that would have created an entirely different world than what we have today? Or on the other side: when would we have had iPads without Steve Jobs?

Daublin writes:

I'm not sure Christianity is a coherent unique event. There wasn't much of a Christian church for hundreds of years after Jesus, and all the little micro-cults all had different beliefs.

Talk about no Christianity is like talk about no agriculture. It was not an event, so much as a gradual and widespread change in the way the majority of humanity did things.

robbbbbb writes:

If you would like to have fun with counterfactual history, then I invite you to ponder what the world would look like if the Japanese had defeated the Russians at Nomonhan in 1939.

...

As to the discussion on the Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, then I think you are correct: the power politics of the pre-Great War period were a build up to the war. The Austrians basically pushed the Serbs into war by giving an ultimatum that Serbia couldn't accede to.

There were many outs, and none of the major players wanted to take them. Without the assassination all of those forces are still in play. The Great War was still coming, it just would have been some other event to set it off.

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