Monday, February 6, 2017

Learning from History?

Why this phrase 'learning from history' should remind me of this rather well-known anecdote, I do not know. (Oh! THAT was not an invitation for you to offer explanations about the abnormality of my brain or for speculations about whether I have one).

The temperance advocate was demonstrating the evils of alcohol. He drops a worm into a glass of water and another into a glass of alcohol. The worm in the water thrives and the one in the alcohol dies.

"What do you learn from this?"

"That Alcohol is helpful in killing the worms in your stomach"

People speak of something called a 'Confirmation bias'. You know, something like if you are convinced that your life has been a long story of bad luck dogging you like Mary's little lamb, you can remember all the incidents where you embraced an opportunity and ended up with egg on your face. Your friends talk of all those times when you did the equivalent of tripping over your bootlaces and falling into a girl's lap but you cannot remember any of those incidents to save your life. It almost sounds as though they are talking of someone else's life. THAT is confirmation bias - you only notice those facts that confirm your opinions.

In other words, facts, which support your own ideas, dance a bhangra around you, pinch your cheeks, pull your nose and kick your butt till you take notice of them. The facts that oppose your idea, on the other hand, are coy little creatures that play hide-and-seek with you, lurk in the undergrowth till you are out of sight and generally take the high road if you take the low. Of course, there is also that problem that, if you do catch one of them unawares before it can hide itself, you give it a cold stare and start seeking 'alternative facts'.

But THAT is nothing...after all it is only a small matter of cherry-picking your facts. What is a little thing like that compared to reinterpreting facts - like that alcohol-as-a-useful-vermifuge thingy - to suit your own purposes? AND people talk about learning from history. As though we do not! All of us learn from History but WHAT we learn from History somehow seems to support what we already think. (THINK, did I say? I am very much of a wuss. I should say KNOW, even if I AM talking of astrophysics and am in opposition to Stephen Hawking.)

Have you ever wondered about the fact that this fickle goddess Fortune always supports the leader you detest and does the dirty by your favorite leader? I mean, there is your leader doing astute and effective things, so it is all thanks to his brains and hard work that he achieves his goals. Every now and then, though, Fortune plays scurvy tricks on him and causes him to fail. That other moron does stupid things and works ineffectively, so it is of course thanks to his incompetence that he fails. But, you know what, this tricky goddess smiles on his idiotic bumbling every now and then, and grants him success. (AM I saying that you attribute your guy's failures and the other guy's successes to luck AND your guy's successes and the other guy's failures to their efforts? Of course, I am not SAYING it!) How is one to learn from History when results can be as much from luck as from policy?

AND everyone knows that History is written by the victors - so exactly how reliable can it be? I mean, if I like a leader, say, and he is known to have set the standard by which all human villainy is to be compared, it is of course because History has not told the truth of his sterling qualities and ended up vilifying him. AND that other guy, who I hate but the world calls a great soul? I mean, come on, how can someone who ate mutton in his youth ever be called a great soul? It is proof positive that all the rest of the things written about him is false glorification!

Learning from History means to know how to pick the grains of truth from all that chaff. The problem with other people is that they do not realize that what I can so clearly see to be grains ARE indeed grains and end up picking up and holding the chaff proudly. No wonder, we all learn different things from History and, surprisingly, we are left exactly as we were before we started digging around in all that muck.

If only confirmation bias were the only problem...


  1. that you have written this post, you have confirmed your bias to people who are the followers of the two types of leaders you talked about!

    1. See - I told you :) There is no avoiding confirmation bias :)

  2. So this is what is called reading between the lines :)