What Evidence Divergent Explanations?

On Thursday I asked:

Among academics who focus on particular times other than our own, far more focus on past than future times.  Why?   

Among the 24 comments a great many creative explanations were offered.  But:

I find it striking that most everyone seems to think it reasonably obvious that we should expect more study of history than the future, and yet people offer widely differing explanations for this phenomena.

This is a common and interesting situation: people offering divergent explanations of a conclusion on which they mostly agree.  This suggests to me that they do not really know why they believe this conclusion.  But does that fact suggest anything about how reasonable is their conclusion?

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  • Well, the obvious explanation for this phenomenon is that everyone has different models, but they’ve all got the hindsight bias.

  • michael vassar

    I read the comments thread, and I didn’t see divergent explanations. I saw a fairly strong convergence on the “common sense” response, “because we can’t ‘study’ the future”, phrased in a number of ways. Maybe it would be good to ask the commentators which other commentators they disagree with.

  • g

    It seems plausible to me that (1) there are quite a lot of good reasons for putting more effort into history than into futurology, and (2) people are conflating “what’s the actual explanation?” with “what’s a possible explanation that seems plausible to you?”, which isn’t very surprising because (3) questions like Robin’s are very commonly asked and answered according to the latter interpretation. And given #1, it’s not surprising if different people have different reasons for thinking it makes sense to put more effort into history than into futurology.

    Consider another conclusion I know Elizer, at least, accepts quite confidently (and so do I), namely atheism. Ask a dozen atheists why they don’t believe in God and you’ll probably get as many different answers as Robin did to his question. This doesn’t seem to me to be a good reason for rejecting atheism (and not only because one could in fact raise just the same objection to all its principal rivals).

    In the comments to Robin’s earlier post, some themes recur frequently: for instance, of the (I think) 18 comments that offered explanations, I think 5 remarked on the difficulty of evaluating futurological work (because you can’t test it until, potentially, much later); 6 on the fact that predicting the future specifically enough to be interesting and useful is very difficult; 3 on the fact that futurology doesn’t have data to work on in the same sort of way as history, and one other on the related fact that there are nothing like established procedures for doing futurological work as there is for history. It’s not like all the commenters were coming up with random unrelated explanations. If divergence of explanations is a reason not to take those explanations so seriously, I think this convergence is a reason to take the recurring explanations more seriously.

  • James W.

    Another possibility is that you’re asking for a simple explanation to a seemingly simple phenomenon that has complicated causation, perhaps a complex web of interrelated contributing causes. People looking at that web each identify the cause that seems most interesting or significant to them. All of these explanations may relate to each other, so everyone can identify a cause without anyone idenfitying the cause. A correct answer that identified the cause might be something boring like: all of the preceding comments have described aspects of the situation. If you put them all together, you would get the total explanation. But we would need further study and regression of experimentally obtained data to weight the significance properly for each part of the explanation, or to identify interactions among causes, and to go on to build a suitable model.

  • Another way of saying what others seem to say:

    Keep piling hay on your camel.

    What straw broke his back?

    Everyone gives a different answer because they pile the hay on their camels in a different order.

  • Constant

    Great exchange. Robin’s hypothesis is plausible and probably is true in similar situations if not here, but the rebuttals I think carry the day.

  • bloix

    Among non-academics, much more effort is put into evaluating future events than past events. Investors, insurers, engineers, bankers, corporate exec’s – everybody wants to know what’s going to happen. What has already happened is of very little interest except as it may be useful for predictive purposes.