Causal Reasoning: How Historians Teach People to Think

As a historian watching the unprecedented historical event of Trump’s election, I can’t help but constantly see the ways that historical thinking is misused or misunderstood, or that the usefulness of historical thinking is just totally unknown to most people. I’m currently working on my handbook to writing history for students, so these issues are very much on my mind. This is the first of a small series of posts on how historical reasoning could help us all in this national crisis.

History is the study of cause and effect. Here are a few rules of causal reasoning that everyone should have been taught in high school.

1. There are always multiple causes. Don’t expect any single causal explanation to explain every case, and don’t stop looking for causes after you find the first one. Don’t fight over what’s “the” cause. (race, class, gender, misinformation…)

2. There are always more than two sides, or ways of seeing an issue. The most useful answers are the ones that acknowledge multiple perspectives. (Clinton can do very well in several ways and still need to ask where she screwed up as well as blaming external factors)

3. Some causes are necessary but not sufficient. Asking “if not for X, what would have been the same? what would have been different?” can help us to think through the relative weight or decisiveness of any given causal factor. (if not for emails, was Clinton just as widely disliked anyway? do we have data to know that?)

4. Some causes may have been a tipping point or trigger, but would not have had that power if not for preceding factors. Don’t confuse proximity to the event for cause. (Comey)

5. Causal factors often function cumulatively. Something that seems totally insufficient to have the given result combines with other individually insufficient factors and together make a difference. (Comey)

6. Every cause is context dependent (this is why history books are so long) . You can’t treat causal factors like weights on a scale that can be interchanged. (race, class, gender)

7. Don’t confuse causal power with intent. Just because a person did X to make Y happen, doesn’t mean X isn’t the reason Z was the actual result. (racism)

8. History doesn’t repeat itself, and it also doesn’t end. Change is the only constant, yet our brains are wired to see the present as both inevitable and stable. It takes a lot of conscious effort and some training to overcome this. (basically no one I’ve seen who isn’t a historian actually understands historical analogies)

9. Reasoning by counterfactual (“Bernie would have won”) can be a useful exercise because it pushes you to think through multiple causes, but you can’t actually know the answer to the counterfactual (whether he would have).

10. Nothing is inevitable – every possible cause is contingent to some degree on other factors. No one could know the result until it played out. (I guess that’s all too obvious just now)

–This PSA has been brought to you by the profession of history, which is not actually about names and dates. —

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