The quality of historical speculation

Few things are simpler than an alternative history scenario in the hands of a Civil War writer. How simple is that?

Generally, we see a single "story element" changed to produce a domino effect in an otherwise static narrative. The effect is linear ... think of Lee winning Gettysburg. We looked at a raft of ACW alternative history scenarios in June, and here's a really complicated one - by the standards of ACW speculation.

Whatever the merits of this content, this (linked) alternative history is pretty ambitious in containing two variables instead of one (the defeat of Sheridan and the death nof Lincoln) - though both trigger straight line effects. And that is as complicated as it ever gets in this subgenre.

The poverty in this contingency-making stems directly from the structure of speculation in the best-selling narratives we love so well. The speculators seem to model the nonfiction they admire.

Stereotypically, bestselling nonfiction narrative shamelessly ladles out hindsight and an omniscient view of conditions in the two contending commands. It then flatters the reader by asking him, given the situation depicted here, why did not someone act in suchandsuch a manner? The reader joins in the fun and entertains bafflement or outrage. This is followed by the author's summary judgement of the historical figure and a low-grade analysis of the "failure" in question. The last step is for the reader to internalize the author's judgement based on the manipulation just experienced. The nonfiction speculation is dry - there is no context outside of what the author has given - and the potential results from a single possible action are implied to be single-track and moving in one direction.

A "lively" argument among readers of the bestselling authors might involve discussing two (gasp!) possible outcomes from a hypothetical course of action.

Our real task in these situations has been well put by Wall Street trader Nassim Taleb: "The trick is to stay away from those who do not seem to know that they are just entertainers..."

This may come as a surprise to those dealing with a retail stockbroker or trading their own accounts, but Wall Street spends great efforts trying to predict the future based on historical analysis. Past performance may be no guarantee of future results, but history is viewed as highly indicative and potentially lucrative.

Thus, portfolio managers have tools for modeling history that historians should know more about - if not the tools themselves, then the underlying concepts. My own time in financial software covered three major developments in portfolio modeling - I was going to go here and relate that to Civil War history and speculation, but it would all be too much for this format. I'll stay with Taleb and piggyback a few simple points taken from his book.

Taleb's particular angle on trading (options) is to find economical ways to bet on surprises. He is not betting that he knows a random event is coming, he is betting that a random event is going to suprise him and everyone else. So he differs from the Wall Street consensus in that he works against the expectations of normalcy and because Wall Street, like any given Pulitzer committee, has its historical pants on backwards. Taleb:
I will repeat this point until I get hoarse: a mistake is not something to be determined after the fact, but in light of the information until that point.
A few historians understand this: Harsh and Freeman, with that "fog of war" technique readers hate so much; and Beatie with his painful reconstructions of timelines. The general run of writers and readers don't buy into Taleb's definition of mistakes, however.

Taleb sees, surrounding every historical contingency, a swarm of "invisible histories" comprised of "might-have-beens." In the world of the portfolio manager's "Monte Carlo" simulations, multiple possibilities burst into life and begin a cascading effect as each alternative spawns additional alternatives. Taleb:
It can be electrifying to generate virtual histories and watch the dispersion between the various results.

...by dint of playing with the Monte Carlo engine for years, I can no longer visualize a realized outcome without reference to the non-realized ones.
That is profound historic sensibility.

We'll apply that observation and others to Civil War history's wave of revision in the second part of this post.