Monday, May 01, 2006

Niall Ferguson and counterfactuals in the Burmese Chronicle

The Burmese king’s discussions with his ministers in the Burmese chronicle are counterfactuals (or virtual history) in the sense of Niall Ferguson. They discuss possible actions that were not taken by the actual contemporary participants in the events and they are textual sources.

The idea of counterfactuals in history has existed for a long time, but Niall Ferguson in the introduction to Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals brought the idea back into the limelight and related it to ideas in the philosophy of history. The discussion at the beginning of the introduction reminds me of Isaiah Berlin's essay The Concept of Scientific History.

What is unique in Nial Ferguson’s approach to counterfactuals is the historical evidence that he targets to find them, namely the beliefs of historical actors about possible historical outcomes before those outcomes happened.

In the minds of historical actors there is some idea of the rules of the game that actors of that historical epoch face. They use these rules of the game to project "what might possibly happen" (vs. "what actually happened") and then use these projections to make decisions about what to do.

Sometimes there is a large discontinuous change that takes contemporaries by surprise. No one was talking about it before it happened, so there was no virtual history in the sense of Niall Ferguson. The British philosopher David Hume in his critique of induction as scientific method and Nicholas Taleb (recent author of Fooled by Randomess) called these unexpected discontinuities black swan events.

A good example of a black swan event is the recent pushing of Thaksin out of the prime-ministership of Thailand by protests in Bangkok that began after the sale of his business empire to a Singapore Holding Company without paying any capital gains taxes on the sale. It appeared to many people as if he had used his power as an elected official (and before that as a civil servant) to profit in his parallel life as a business man.

Nicholas Taleb is a mathematician dealing with time series of asset prices, one historical variable isolated from the complexity of all the rest that large numbers of people have a good reason to attend to, they want to make money. These asset price variables summarize their collective expectations about the future and how the price could move. Explaining past asset price movements is obviously going to be a lot more tractable problem than explaining the complexity of general history, but this is still an intractable problem as Taleb shows in his book Fooled by Chance.

Historians are not so lucky, they deal with whole constellations of variables that are continuously changing, but Taleb’s special much simpler case can shed some light on the historian’s much more complicated case.

Taleb advocates modeling with Monte-Carlo simulations of asset price time series, these are basically the virtual counterfactual histories of Niall Ferguson that Andre Maurois describes:

"There is no privileged past…There is an infinitude of pasts, all equally valid…at each and every instant of time, however brief you suppose it, the line of events forks like the stem of a tree putting forth twin branches" (Maurois cited in Ferguson, 1).

Taleb insists that the proper perspective is that of the historical actor rooted at a particular place in time (without perfect hindsight) who has to make decisions at that point in time with the information available to him.

This perspective is shared by Taleb, Ferguson, as well as numerous predecessors. The quote that precedes Ferguson’s essay describes this perspective perfectly:

"The historian must…constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors will seem to permit different outcomes. If he speaks of Salamis, then it must be as if the Persians might still win; if he speaks of the coup d’etat of Brumaire, then it must remain to be seen if Bonaparte will be ignominiously repulsed" (Huizinga cited in Ferguson 1)

[Somach growling, hungry, get to eat.....]