The quality of historical speculation, part 2

Déjà vu in Civil War reading: you've felt it.

The author brings us to some moment in battle, a single point of decision; he gives us information to provide an overview the protagonist never had; he directs our attention to a limited number of choices available, just one or two; he infers simple, inevitable, single-tracked outcomes for each choice; and finally, he invites the reader to make a choice that has been pre-selected by the author. Missed opportunity. Failure to annihilate. The enemy escapes. Drat.

The day for this kind of historical writing is over.

Archer Jones explains that there never was an opportunity to annihilate an enemy in the Civil War.

Joseph Harsh directs us to consider what the general knew, when he knew it, and what options he reasonably could make at any given decision point.

Thomas Rowland points out that the idea of an early end to the war contradicts everything we know about American history. Reality impinges on "opportunity."

Wall Street teaches us that decision points do not yield single outcomes traveling down single paths, but rather that hosts of consequences cascade from single points, each in turn generating waves of unexpected outcomes.

Nassim Taleb tells us that in trading, he sees each outcome surrounded by a cloud of "invisible history" indicating all the possible outcomes surrounding each decision.

Brent Nosworthy points out that our underlying assumptions about the dynamics of a Civil War battlefield are wrong and have been wrong for generations.

Benoit Mandelbrot has proved that volatility scales. Small inputs (decisions) can produce massive outputs: we are norm-biased and do not understand discontinuity or risk.

Taleb's term for this is that people are "probability blind" and generally not competent to predict outcomes. If mathematicians are probability blind, the historian should probably lay down that divining rod.

Skip past the alternative scenarios in your old favorites. Reserve judgements suggested by belle lettrists bending complex realities into dramatic storylines. Decline the author's invitation to judge historical figures; the reading pleasure will still be there.