Why most narrative history is wrong

Even the best histories fail to identify the real causal forces that drive events. Science explains why

Published October 7, 2018 1:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Excerpted from How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories by Alex Rosenberg. Copyright 2018, The MIT Press.

It’s almost universally accepted that learning the history of something — the true story of how it came about — is one way to understand it. It’s almost as widely accepted that learning its history is sometimes the best way to understand something. Indeed, in many cases, it’s supposed that the only way to understand some things is by learning their history.

All three of these suppositions are wrong. Cognitive science, evolutionary anthropology, and, most of all, neuroscience are in the process of showing us at least three things about history: (1) our attachment to history as a vehicle for understanding has a long evolutionary pedigree and a genetic basis; (2) exactly what it is about the human brain that makes almost all the explanations history has ever offered us wrong; and (3) how our evolution shaped a useful tool for survival into a defective theory of human nature.

Many readers may find the first of these assertions easy to accept. Our recourse to history — true stories — as a means of understanding is proverbially “second nature.” If science can show it’s literally “first nature,” bred in the bone, a part of what makes us tick, somehow genetically hardwired, it may help us understand features of human life and culture that are ancient, ubiquitous, and fixed beyond change. But the next two assertions will strike most readers as literally incredible. How could all the explanations history offers be wrong, and how could evolution by itself have saddled us with any particular theory, let alone a theory of human nature that is completely wrong?

The three assertions — that our confidence in history, our taste, our need for it, indeed, our love of history is almost completely hardwired, that history is all wrong, and that its wrongness is the result of the later evolution of what was originally hardwired — are pretty much a package deal. The second and third hard-to-accept assertions build on the first one, and they do so in ways that make them hard to reject. If cognitive psychology, evolutionary anthropology, and, most of all, neuroscience between them explain why we are so attached to history as a way of understanding, they also undermine history’s claim to provide real understanding of the past, the present and the future.

Just to be clear, historians are perfectly capable of establishing actual, accurate, true chronologies and other facts about what happened in the past. They aren’t wrong about feudalism coming before the Reformation or whether Italy and Japan were on the Allies’ side in World War One. Moreover, historians working in archives, for example, retrieve documentary evidence for important events in human history that have disappeared from collective memory or were never even noticed. More important, many written histories, especially those produced in the academic departments of universities, are more than just accurate chronicles. The approaches to the past that many professors of history employ can provide powerful new and better explanations of well-known historical events and processes, often by identifying causes previously unknown or ignored (as we will see). Academic history is more than, and usually different from, true stories.

But academic history isn’t the history that we consume to explain individual human actions and the lives they constitute, or to understand famous creative, political, public, and scientific achievements, fateful choices and their all too often tragic consequences. That’s because nowadays academic history is rarely narrative. The history that professors write these days has been deeply influenced by the sciences — social, behavioral, even natural— and it rarely seeks to explain individual achievements or even lives, singly or taken together. Academic history often makes use of stories — records, letters, diaries, chronicles that people write down — as evidence for its explanations. But it is not much given to explaining by telling these (true) stories.

The history that concerns us here explains the past and the present by narrative: telling stories — true ones, of course; that’s what makes them history, not fiction. Narrative history is not just an almanac or a chronology of what happened in the past. It is explanation of what happened in terms of the motives and the perspectives of the human agents whose choices, decisions, and actions made those events happen.

And that history, the kind most readers of nonfiction consume, is almost always wrong. What narrative history gets wrong are its explanations of what happened. And the same goes for biography—the history of one person over a lifetime. Biographers can get all the facts from birth to death right. What they inevitably get wrong is why their subjects did what they accurately report them as having done.

It all starts with the fact that most history is narrative, narrative is stories, and stories are chronologies stitched together into plots we understand better than anything else, or at least we think we do. The same science that reveals why we view the world through the lens of narrative also shows that the lens not only distorts what we see but is the source of illusions we can neither shake nor even correct for most of the time. As we’ll see, however, all narratives are wrong — wrong in the same way and for the same reason.

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Uncovering what bedevils all narrative and, through it, all narrative history, is important, perhaps crucial to the future of humanity. How beneficial the impact of that uncovering will be is hard to say, for reasons that will become clear. But it is easy to identify, as indeed we will, the vast harms that have resulted from the hegemony of narrative history in human affairs. It’s crucial to disabuse ourselves of the myth that history confers real understanding that can shape or otherwise help us cope with the future.

Almost everyone thinks history is a route to knowledge, sometimes one among many, sometimes the best route, sometimes the only route to it. And once people think they know something, they act on that knowledge. If they’re wrong about what they know, the results can be frustration, disappointment, or worse, all the way from harm to themselves up to catastrophes for humanity.

The claim that historical narrative is indispensable to understanding is made casually and daily. Pick up any issue of the New York Times Book Review, or the London or New York Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement, and you’ll find a reviewer lauding a history or a biography as indispensable for understanding some perfectly nonhistorical subject. It’s not just historians who say so; often it’s the experts on that subject who do. For example, suppose you want to understand the policy of “quantitative easing” employed by the Federal Reserve System of the United States in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007–2008. Well, then, you need to read Roger Lowenstein’s history of the Fed’s creation 100 years ago, "America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve". How do we know? Just take the word of former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin: “It should be required reading for anyone who is engaged in, or interested in, the actions of the modern Fed.” Pardonable exaggeration?

Are you interested in what made Steve Jobs tick? Then surely you have to get Walter Isaacson’s biography. Or maybe you should also read "Becoming Steve Jobs" by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. The truth about what Jobs was thinking in his final months and days must lie somewhere between these two histories of this one man.

Even where historical narrative doesn’t seem indispensable to understanding something, it is widely believed to be the best way. Nothing illustrates this belief more clearly than the penchant of science writers for historical narrative. Science is not stories; it’s theories, laws, models, findings, observations, experiments. Yet almost the only way writers communicate science to the general public is through the narrative history of breakthroughs or the biographies of the scientists who achieved them. You want to know about the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift, read Simon Winchester’s wonderful history of the subject, "Krakatoa". Even if you don’t want to know about the subject, Winchester will make you interested in it. Space-time physics? Well, then the book for you is Stephen Hawking’s "A Brief History of Time", which explains cosmology via a brief history of physics going back to Aristotle. In fact, the number-one best seller in science books is Bill Bryson’s "A Short History of Nearly Everything". There’s a good reason writers communicate science in stories. It’s not just that most people prefer stories. It’s also because most nonscientists find it extremely hard, if not impossible, to acquire scientific information in any other way. The trouble is, after they’ve read these science books, people generally remember the stories, but they can’t recall the science.

It’s widely held that history is not just necessary for understanding something, and not just the best way to acquire this understanding (or delude yourself into thinking you have), but that it’s all you need to understand something in at least one domain—history itself.

It’s slightly inconvenient that in English (and other languages) the word “history” is ambiguous: it is used to describe both what happened in the past and the quite different study of what happened in the past. German has two different terms: there’s what happened, the events themselves, “historische Ereignisse,” and then there is their history,“Geschichte.” We’ll have to live with the ambiguity. But with the distinction in mind, it seems obvious that the only way to learn about history, the past, is history, the fruit of the study of the past, and that all you need to understand the past is the right history of it. Thus there are still those who hold that all you need to do to understand the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is to read Edward Gibbon’s glorious narrative "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire".

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If — and it’s a big “if” — narrative history gets almost everything wrong, why does it matter? Because the narratives that the field of history has provided have been harmful to the health, well-being, and the very lives of most people down through the chain of historical events. Stories historians tell are deeply implicated in more misery and death than probably any other aspect of human culture. And, as we’ll see, it’s the nature of the most compelling stories they tell that’s responsible for the trail of tears, pain, suffering, carnage, and sometimes extermination that make up most of human history.

Many disputes between peoples are intractable owing to the histories each side tells itself. Perhaps the most obvious current example of how history hardens two parties in conflict is provided by Israel and Palestine. Each has a narrative of dispossession, one two thousand years old, the other a century old, both of which drive emotions so strongly that neither side can put the histories aside and find a modus vivendi with the other. If only the Israelis and Palestinians accepted that stories fan emotional flames rather than confer understanding, they might cease to grant them authority over how the future should be arranged.

For a more egregious example, you have only to think back to the story of the “Stab in the back” historians composed to explain the defeat of Germany in World War One — the “Great War” — and that Adolf Hitler exploited to inflame the German people against Socialists, democrats, and, most of all, Jews. The wars of nationalism, religion, imperialism, colonialism — and anticolonialism, for that matter—begin and persist because of grievances often fueled by historical narratives.

Why do I say that most historical narratives are harmful, damaging to people, instead of saying that some are also uplifting and inspiring? Have I made a count, totting up numbers and weighing the baleful effects of some against the benevolent effects of others? It’s not necessary. As you’ll see, evolutionary anthropologists know enough about human cultural evolution to be confident that most histories have motivated and continue to motivate people and peoples to take from — or refuse to share with — others. The xenophobia, racism, and patriarchy that ruled long before the advent of the nation-state were already clothed in histories of who did what to whom. The nation-state, when it arrived, was just a more efficient means to raise the death toll of narratives. The Old Testament is only the best known of these vehicles of in-group bonding and out-group enmity. As you’ll see, stories emerged in human prehistory as practices that were able to move humans from the bottom of the food chain on the African savanna to the top in a matter of a thousand centuries or so. These cultural practices were selected for owing to their effectiveness, first, in killing large animals and, then, in killing — or, even worse, enslaving — other humans.

There is a reason why stories and histories of war and killing have been more popular than the lives of saints or artists since Homer. The reason is not, however, given in a history. It is provided by science, in this case, social psychology, as we’ll see.

If we humans are ever to move beyond our internecine histories, we will have to put historical “understanding” behind us. We will have to recognize that even the best histories we can contrive are mostly wrong or, when right, are right by accident, that they fail to identify the real causal forces that drive events, that they obstruct efforts to really understand our past, and that they serve as harmful tools of the worse angels of our nature.

We are preadapted to love history. We took the love of history in with our mothers’ milk. More like heroin than milk, this love is an addiction to history, however, not a mere taste for it. Even when we come to recognize its harmful effects, we continue to crave the sensation it produces. And we’ll never be comfortable with the only medication that can block its harmful effects — science. Like the recovering alcoholic, once we recognize the disease, we’ll also realize that we have to struggle every day not to succumb to its temptations, its all too meretricious allure, if we’re ever to really understand anything at all.

Historians will of course be outraged by these assertions, and confident about how to refute them. To begin with, most contemporary academic historians will deny any interest in advancing explanatory narratives—mere “stories,” even true ones. And they’re right to do so: indeed, what most faculty members produce in the history departments of the world’s universities is not my target. But the celebrated popular historians whose explanations turn out to be mainly wrong will protest just as vigorously. They’ll present story after story that vindicates their sort of historical understanding, showing that it is not only indispensable, but also the most, indeed the only, reliable guide to what happened in the past and to what will happen in the future.

Meanwhile, there are several things we need to consider that should make us skeptical about narrative history as a path to understanding. For one thing, when it comes to physics, geology, and the other natural sciences, the specialists don’t care about history much at all. Read the textbooks, scientific journals, attend the seminars and colloquia where they present their results to one another. The histories of their disciplines — how they got to where they are today, don’t come into it. Facts, data, evidence, observations are all important, and though many are about past events, recent or distant, all they do is provide evidence for scientific results, findings, models, or theories. Scientists never confuse science with the narrative histories of science, still less with the biographies of scientists.

A second thing we need to consider about history that should make us skeptical is the unending disagreement among historians over the same events. Gibbon was hardly the last word on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Historians have been arguing inconclusively about this matter since well before the sixth and last volume of Gibbon’s history was published in 1789. And the arguments about whether Gibbon got it right — whether he correctly identified the cause of Rome’s decline — have not turned on the discovery of new evidence unavailable to him. Narrative historians are forever rewriting the past, disputing one another’s causal claims. And there is no reason to think they will ever cease to do so, even for events as long past as the fall of the Roman Empire. Two centuries after Gibbon published the first volume of his history, Mary Beard published her distinctly different account, "SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome", which rose to the top of many best-seller lists soon after. Thus, even after all that time, there’s still no agreement on why the Roman Empire fell.

Biography is as much subject to revisionism as history is. There are good reasons to read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. It’s entertaining, amusing, even inspiring. But, within weeks of its publication, other books appeared disputing Isaacson’s understanding of Jobs. Such disputes will continue until the public is no longer fascinated by their subjects. And there are many figures in whom interest never ends. Indeed, Lincoln has been the subject of some 40,000 books. But even a correct recitation of the facts about someone that links those facts into a narrative of the person’s life doesn’t seem to settle any matter about what made that someone tick. New archival materials—letters, diaries, eyewitness testimony—may add to the record of events and may even discredit other materials. But, of course, that’s not why George Washington or Winston Churchill gets a new biography every generation (or sooner).

Historical revisionism could be evidence supporting narrative history’s claim to provide real understanding, but only if, like successive scientific explanations, historical explanations converged. Scientific theories may start off being very wrong, but, over time, at least the ones that survive testing get better, as scientists home in on an ever-smaller number of better explanations of what their predecessors set out to explain. Two important reasons to think that the explanations that survive the winnowing process are better than the ones that don’t are their predictive success and their technological applications. By contrast, historians’ successive explanations for the same historical events — historical revisionism — don’t show the same kind of convergence. Instead, these explanations for the same events, whether long like the Reformation or short like the outbreak of World War One, differ radically from one another. Indeed, the pattern of their succession all too often cycles and repeats itself before spinning off into an entirely new direction. Although narrative historians may be able to offer cogent explanations for their revisionism, the succession of these explanations and their lack of convergence, in stark contrast to explanations in the natural sciences, should give us pause for thought.

And there’s a third thing we need to consider about history, one that should make us worry whether history is indispensable or even useful for understanding what’s happening now, let alone what may happen in the future. Take the current conflict in the Middle East. All we really need to understand this conflict is what participants believe and want now, not what their parents, ancestors, and founding patriarchs believed and wanted — or even what actually happened to them — a hundred, a thousand, or three thousand years ago. But popular historians and common sense tell us it’s only through history that we can figure out what motivates people now. Not just world history, but personal history, too. That’s why reading people’s biographies can help us understand their current and future choices. It’s what William Faulkner was getting at when he wrote in "Requiem for a Nun": “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. All this is so obvious, it seems hardly worth mentioning as a justification for paying attention to history.

But this rationale for studying histories and biographies should be troubling — if for no other reason than they don’t tell us what actually happened in the past, only what people think happened in the past. It’s people’s beliefs about history that motivate, not the actual historical events. So, even if we get the facts right, that may be irrelevant to understanding people’s present or their future, for that matter. If we want to understand the present and the future, we better figure out what people now believe about history instead of what actually happened in it. But even that premise is not one we should accept without demur.

Contemporary social and behavioral sciences certainly don’t vindicate the notion that people’s beliefs about history — whether accurate or mistaken — are indispensable to understanding their affairs. Take economics, for example. There’s almost no narrative history in most of the influential economic models of human behavior—the ones that won the Nobel Prizes for economists like George Akerlof and Thomas Schelling. Economics explains events by showing how human choice is driven by current expectations and current desires about the future. That’s why Lowenstein’s history America’s Bank is not going to be on many syllabi for courses on monetary theory. To understand the central bank, you need to understand the effect of reserve requirements, how buying and selling bonds affects the discount rates, and the quantity theory of money. You don’t need to know anything about Carter Glass, Nelson Aldrich, and Woodrow Wilson, the men who, in Lowenstein’s history, made the Fed.

In fact, the relationship between economic understanding and historical understanding is exactly backward in many cases. Do you want to understand the history of slavery’s expansion in the United States, for example, or the decline of Spain as a world power, or why Britain adopted free trade in the nineteenth century? Most economists will tell you that what you need is an ahistorical economic theory. History only provides the events to be explained and the events that test the explanation.

These reasons for skepticism about narrative history’s powers to confer real understanding raise an interesting question for psychology: why is it that we prefer narrative histories or stories as the most effective means of conveying information? One thing that makes this question worth asking is that, when scientists communicate their research to other scientists or teach their science to students, they never use history to do so. They hardly ever mention it. They don’t think history confers understanding of what they do. But scientists and science writers all agree that most nonscientists don’t see things the same way. Stephen Hawking resorted to history to explain cosmology, even though his understanding of the matter as a physicist is quite ahistorical. Bill Bryson employed history to explain everything science reveals, probably because that’s the only way that he, along with most of us, can understand most things, not being scientists ourselves.

So why do science writers employ the historical strategy when they try to convey science to nonscientists? It’s not enough simply to note that people like stories more than laws of nature, that they prefer narratives to formulas, that they can make more sense of movie plots than plots on graph paper. We need to know why they do.

We humans have an insatiable appetite for stories with identifiable heroes, the tension of a quest, obstacles overcome, and a happy (or at least emotionally satisfying) ending. Science writers know that if they can find features like these, nonscientists will stay interested even when they don’t really understand much about the science itself. At their best, such plotted histories of a scientific achievement may convey some of the science in ways that enable nonscientists to understand more than they could glean from journal articles or textbooks, or even from conversations with the scientists themselves. Of course, it’s not just the way science writers keep readers interested. Scientists, even Nobel laureates, succumb to the satisfaction, the pleasure, the release, sometimes even the catharsis of stories that explain the attractions of history to everyone else. Some write best sellers like James D. Watson’s autobiographical "The Double Helix," and everybody, including scientists, reads them for the story. It’s everyone’s preferred mode of understanding.

Our preference for, attraction to, and ability to remember stories are facts about human psychology that need scientific explanation. There are powerful motivations for uncovering the sources of our addiction to stories. First and most obvious, understanding the springs and sources of our attachment to narrative may make us better able to harness it in the service of other human needs and aspirations. Social psychologists share an interest with marketing executives and movie producers in discovering exactly how it is that stories satisfy in the way nothing else does. Knowing why would mean more effective advertising messages, political campaigns, screenplays, and so on. It’s not just science writers seeking a place on the nonfiction bestseller lists who should care about knowing why narrative has such a hold on us. With good answers to this question, we might be able to improve science education, at all levels, even the communication of information among scientists themselves. At a minimum, we’d be able to more reliably identify barriers to broader scientific understanding.

But, I argue there is another, even more compelling reason to answer the questions raised by our love of narrative and consequent attachment to history. The real trouble with that love and attachment is that the explanations of narrative history get almost everything wrong, and the consequences are more often than not harmful. Narrative history is almost always wrong in a way that science has managed to escape. It’s wrong even when a narrative gets the facts of what happened exactly right, without adding things that didn’t happen, or leaving out crucial things that did.

To actually convey understanding, a historical explanation has to get its dates right. Then it has to get the causal connections between the events in the chronology right. But getting this latter right almost never happens in narrative history or biography. The short answer to the question “Why not?” is that no one has figured out a reliable theory that identifies both the real causes and identifies what it is about them that makes them the real causes. Without such a theory, even if you got the “dots” right, you wouldn’t know what the connections between them were, and for the same reason, you wouldn’t even know why they were the right “dots”—the significant events in the historical chain that does the explaining.

There is a telltale sign history doesn’t connect the dots the right way every time we commemorate a major historical event. A hundred years after the onset of World War One, we think we have a good handle on the events that led up to it. But the spate of books published on the centenary of that cataclysmic war still disagree radically about the “right” narrative of the war—what caused it, the arms race, fears of encirclement, nationalism, colonialism, commercial competition, some of the above, all of the above, none of the above? When the war broke out in August of 1914, a former chancellor of Germany asked the then ruling chancellor why it had happened. His reply, “Ah, if only one knew,” still applies. The persistence of radical disagreement about even the most well documented and most interesting events is a symptom of the problem historical explanation faces. As you’ll see, the solution to the problem requires us to give up narrative history as a source of understanding.

It will be difficult to do so, of course. History is vastly entertaining. It gives us too much pleasure (along with a host of other emotions and feelings). But that’s just another symptom of the problem narrative history faces as a source of knowledge and another reason it’s a dangerous substitute for knowledge.

The stories popular historians tell scratch the itch of curiosity, they satisfy our felt psychological need to know why something happened, and they do so even when they are completely wrong, so long as we don’t know that they are. There’s no difference between the satisfaction of curiosity Robert Southey’s 1813 biography of Lord Horatio Nelson provides us and the feeling we get from reading Patrick O’Brian’s suite of great novels about Nelson’s contemporary, Jack Aubrey, R.N., Admiral of the Blue. Curiosity assuaged is no substitute for real understanding, and no mark of it either. But when a good story puts an end to further inquiry by sapping our desire to learn more, it can be an obstacle to real explanation. Conspiracy theories of history exercise their grip on credulous people largely because they “make sense” of events in ways that exploit the desires and the ignorance of the gullible and the suspicious. The difference between these stories and the ones reasonable people believe is not in the way they satisfy curiosity. The psychological closure that both produce is an obstacle to further inquiry.

Combine the psychological effectiveness of good stories in putting an end to curiosity with the way in which they can motivate action, and you have a powerful further reason for trying to understand how stories work and whether they can convey real knowledge. Our need to figure out how stories work will be especially compelling, if as I have suggested, by and large, the impact of (spoken, written, filmed) history on (the actual course of) history has been destructive and, at times, horrific.

The suggestion that every explanation in narrative history is wrong seems far too radical for anyone to take seriously. Indeed, so radical that serious readers, and especially lovers of history, will be strongly tempted to treat the whole idea as unthinkable. In a sense, they will be right. We really can’t shake our attachment to historical narrative. But learning from cognitive psychology, evolutionary anthropology, and neuroscience exactly why we love stories so much is enough to establish why we need to give them up as sources of knowledge.

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Excerpted from How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories by Alex Rosenberg. Copyright 2018, The MIT Press.

By Alex Rosenberg

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