In defence of counterfactuals

July 20, 2008

Counterfactual history is a branch of historiography which deals with what if questions. What would have happened if Nazi Germany had won the Second World War? What if the Persians had defeated the Athenian rowers at Salamis in 480 B.C? Or the Spanish Armada had been successful. Or the French Revolution had failed. It is fair to say that it is not an activity which enjoys universal support among historians – EH Carr’s “an idle parlour game” springs to mind. EP Thomson was even less charitable describing it as ‘Geschichtswissenschlopff’, which translated comes out as unhistorical crap.”

            I though am going to defend these counterfactuals. First I think they are entertaining and can help bring history to life. There are some fine examples in fiction and in movies. Authors such as Philip Roth, (The Plot against America) Robert Harris (Fatherland) and Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle) have all used this device And who can forget such films as What a Wonderful Life, Peggy Sue got Married and Back to the Future?

In fact counterfactuals are part of how we humans think about the world. We have the third conditional to describe these phenomena. If I had worked a bit harder, I would have passed the exam. If only I hadn’t got that girl pregnant. I wish I hadn’t put all my money on that horse. In his poem Maud Muller John Greenleaf Whittier the poet wrote:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

This reflection about the past can sometimes be a useful process. I know they say there’s no use crying over spilt milk but if you can prevent the milk from spilling in the first place, that must be a good thing. Life is not preordained and small events can occasionally have massive consequences.

            The same can be said of history. If we look at the world around us many things appear to be chaotic, unsure. From where we stand it’s hard to see how things will turn out in the future. But then magically when a certain period of time has elapsed all these people, places and events blend into a pattern that we know as history. With the advantage pf hindsight everything appears to be inevitable but as the great British historian AJP Taylor stated: Nothing is inevitable until it happens.

            Looking at counterfactuals is important because it can help you focus on what was really significant in a historical situation.  I am not a historical determinist and I feel chance can play a big part in history. I see parallels with chaos theory, where there are so many factors in play that it becomes impossible to predict the outcome. History comprises the decisions of hundreds, thousands, millions of people, or maybe just one person. It is interesting to think of the role that individuals play in history and how they interact with social and other forces. If Adolf Hitler had been killed in a car accident in 1930 (apparently he nearly was) I find it hard to believe it would not have had a massive impact on history. What about Gorbachev? Would the USSR have collapsed without him? Obviously it had severe structural problems but maybe another leader would have reacted in a different way.

The question of Josef Stalin is another fascinating one to consider when analysing the role of individuals and systemic factors. Some on the left see Stalin as aberration and think the outcome may have been different had Lenin lived longer and a different successor emerged. In this case I see his rise as something systemic. I might not go quite as far as Solzhenitsyn who described Stalin as “the blind executioner of Lenin’s political will” but I do see him as a product of the system. Maybe someone a little better could have emerged but the fact that somebody like Stalin did triumph, should not be considered surprising. Interestingly, here the law of unintended consequences comes into play here and Stalin played a fundamental role in saving Western capitalism when it was challenged by Adolf Hitler. The complexity of history was well captured in a remark by a Chinese politician.  When asked about the impact of the French Revolution Zhou Enlai ,the first premier of the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, supposedly replied,: “It’s too early to tell”.

I feel therefore when analysing history it is useful to look at alternative scenarios provided that they have some credibility. Obviously it would not be sensible to ask what would have happened if Attila the Hun had possessed battlefield nuclear weapons. Plausible counterfactuals, on the other hand, can help us understand better what actually happened. The late Steven Jay Gould, the palaeontologist believed that we were products of contingent history. If we were to rewind the tape of life to the early history of multicellular forms and you would get a whole different set of solutions. It is highly unlikely that humans would appear in this new version. Maybe human history is similar.



Some quotes about history

July 20, 2008

History is the essence of innumerable biographies. Thomas Carlyle


Study the past, if you would divine the future. Confucius


No effective historian of the future can be innocent of statistics, and indeed he or she should probably be a literate amateur economist, psychologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and geographer. Bernard Bailyn


The “facts” of history do not exist for any historian until he creates them, and into every fact he creates some part of his individual experience must enter. Carl Becker


A nation must be willing to look dispassionately at its own history. Willy Brandt


All history is the history of thought. Benedetto Croce


Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make. Their freedom of achievement is limited by the necessities of their environment. C. L. R. James


History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today. Henry Ford


History: gossip well told. Elbert Hubbard


Human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness.AJP. Taylor


I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Abraham Lincoln


It is impossible to write ancient history because we do not have enough sources, and impossible to write modern history because we have far too many. Charles Pierre Péguy


Who controls the past controls…the future: who controls the present controls the past. George Orwell

Movie monolgues #2

July 20, 2008

A Civil Action.

Jan Schlichtmann played by John Travolta.


It’s like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth as much as a living, severely maimed plaintiff. However, if it’s a long agonizing death as opposed to a quick drowning or car wreck, the value can rise considerably. A dead adult in his 20’s is generally worth less than one who is middle-aged, a dead woman less than a dead man, a single adult less than one who is married, black less than white, poor less than rich. The perfect victim is a while male professional, 40 years old, at the height of his earning power, struck down in his prime. And the most imperfect? Well, in the calculus of personal injury law, a dead child is worth the least of all…


The odds of a plaintiff’s lawyer winning in civil court are two to one against. Think about that for a second. Your odds of surviving a game of Russian roulette are better than winning a case at trial. Twelve times better. So why does anyone do it? They don’t. They settle. Out of the 780,000 cases filed each year, only 12,000, or one and a half percent, ever reach a verdict. The whole idea of lawsuits is to settle, to compel the other side to settle. And you do that by spending more money than you should, which forces them to spend more money than they should, and whoever comes to their senses first, loses. Trials are a corruption of the entire process, and only fools with something to prove, end up ensnared in them. And when I say prove, I don’t mean about the case. I mean about themselves…

My media week 20/07/08

July 20, 2008

The excellent Matthew Parris has an excellent article about the amount of hot air currently coming from Gordon Brown’s Labour government. The piece is called Sound and press releases, signifying nothing. Click here.


ABC  has a podcast  debating Free trade versus fair trade. Click here.


BBC Radio 4’s Analysis has a podcast about The World’s Shifting Balance. It is presented by  Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator of the Financial Times. It deals with the dramatic changes currently affecting the world economy. The programme has a transcript and will be available until on Thursday, 24th July 2008.  Click here.


Every Saturday Ben Goldacre does an excellent column debunking bad science. His typical targets are dodgy newspaper statistics, celebrities promoting vitamin pills and alternative medicine in general. This week’s article looks at how newspapers divide  all the inanimate objects in the world into the ones that either cause or cure cancer and how this produces ridiculous stories. Click here.

Grameen Bank and the social business model

July 13, 2008

On December 10, 2006 Mosammat Taslima Begum, who had borrowed 16 euros from a bank in 1992 to buy a goat, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in a ceremony held at Oslo City Hall. Begum had taken the loan from a very special kind of bank called Grameen Bank. This loan proved to be a godsend for her, as she became a successful entrepreneur and one of Grameen Bank’s elected board members. It was in this capacity, on behalf of the bank’s investors and borrowers that Begum went to the Norwegian capital to pick up the prize. I mention all this because a few days ago I attended a conference in Madrid given by Professor Muhammad Yunus, an economics professor and the founder of Grameen Bank, the only business corporation to have ever won a Nobel Prize.

First let me give you a few facts about this bank. The word “Grameen”, derived from the word “gram” or “village”, literally means “of the village”. Although its origins go back to 1976 it actually became an independent bank in 1983. It gives loans to the rural poor, especially women who make up around 97% of its clients. These are very small loans known as microcredits.

How do they work? Each borrower must belong to a five-member group. These groups do not provide any guarantee for a loan to one of their members; repayment responsibility solely rests on the individual borrower. However if one member of a group defaults, that group will never receive a loan from Grameen. So it’s a kind of social pressure exerted by the group members. Grameen enjoys very high payback rates—over 98 percent. I’m sure a lot of banks in the advanced world may feel envious.

The Grameen Bank has branched out into over two dozen enterprises represented by the Grameen Family of Enterprises. These organizations include: Grameen Trust, Grameen Fund, Grameen Communications, Grameen Energy, Grameen Telecom…

Yunus is a believer in what are called social businesses. These businesses begin with a goal such as better nutrition or access to education. They obtain start-up capital and attract investors. Where they differ from a rational business is that they do not pay dividends to their investors; all the profits are reinvested. The business is judged not by earnings per share or some other traditional metric but by their efficiency in achieving their social objective. This, for Yunus is a much more effective than traditional charity and provide what Yunus calls “the missing piece of the capitalist system.” 

            But not everything is sweetness and light. Grameen has drawn fire from both the left and right. For Gina Neff of the Left Business Observer the microcredit movement represents a privatisation of public safety-net programs. They say the interest rates are abusive. The neo-liberals call it macrowelfare and think for-profit corporations are a better bet. What do I think? I certainly prefer this kind of solution to the top-down ones favoured by the left. The idea seems a fantastic one to me. Perhaps Grameen is a bit opaque in its accounting. Some claim that their default figures do not reflect reality. I have also found it difficult to interpret the overall impact Grameen has on the Bangladeshi economy. I don’t think Mr. Yunus should be given a free ride but I think he should be applauded for such an exciting innovation. Time will tell how much can be achieved with microcredits and I’m sure they are not a panacea for all the developing world’s problems but I feel they should be given a chance to show that they can produce a beneficial change for the poor around the world.



My media week 13/07/08.

July 13, 2008

Linguist Geoff Nunberg gives a balanced perspective about all those dire predictions of how new technologies will destroy our language. (STREAMING) Click here. It comes with the text.

This is not a typical article you’d expect to see in the FT – Bank leaders are a disgrace to capitalism. (ARTICLE) Click here.

The Telegraph has a piece about The University of the Third Age – a place  where retired people can continue learning. They have no lectures or exams but they do have an excellent array of subjects from from ancient Egypt to bellydancing. (ARTICLE) Click here.

Thinking Allowed is a radio discussion programme on BBC Radio 4, which focuses on the the latest social sciences research and is hosted by Laurie Taylor a Professor of Sociology at the University of York. Topics in the past have included paganism, gay chav erotic, the hairless body and even sandwiches. Some people have claimed he was the inspiration for Malcolm Bradbury’s wonderful comic creation, left-wing university lecturer Howard Kirk. Nowadays Taylor has moderated somewhat and has a nice self-deprecating sense of humour.This week’s programme is about the origins of glamour as Taylor  talks to Stephen Gundle, Professor of Film and Television Studies at Warwick University the author of a new book, Glamour a History and also discusses the history of British Advertising with Winston Fletcher, former Chairman of the Advertising Association. (PODCAST AND STREAMING) Click here.

The Daily Mash has a satirical piece about a new career path for Cristiano Ronaldo. (ARTICLE)  Click here.


My favourite links #14

July 13, 2008




This week I’m looking at, a website where you can find short video explaining life. The list is very extensive and includes:


Manners And Body Language Across Cultures

Serving In Tennis

Strategies For Rock, Paper Scissors

Wedding Etiquette

How To Butch-Up Your Male Dog




QI: A selection #2

July 13, 2008

William Phelps Eno, an American credited with developing the stop sign, the roundabout, one-way streets, island crossings, bus stops, taxi stands and traffic signal towers never learned to drive. He much preferred to ride horses, thought cars a mere fad and was driven everywhere by a chauffeur. “Roundabout” was coined by another American, Logan Pearsall Smith, who suggested it to the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English in 1927. Until then, British roundabouts were called “gyratory circuses”.

Eno’s innovations didn’t come in time to save Bridget Driscoll. In 1896, she became the first road traffic fatality when she was struck by a car travelling at 4mph while on her way to a folk-dancing display in Crystal Palace. The coroner at her inquest hoped “such a thing would never happen again”. Now more than a million people die in traffic accidents each year: but you still only run the same risk of being knocked down and killed crossing the road as you do of contracting CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease): 1 in 365 million. And 38 per cent of UK pedestrians who die on the roads are drunk.


The father of the modern frozen-food industry, Clarence Birdseye (1886–1956), was known as “Bugs” at college because of his passion for animals. He became notorious for his willingness to consume any creature: starlings, blackbirds, whale, porpoise, lynx, alligator, lizards. “I ate about everything… beaver tail, polar bear and lion tenderloin,” he said. “And I’ll tell you another thing — the front half of a skunk is excellent.” One of his soups combined bits of mice, chipmunks, gophers and packrats. In 1916, he moved to Labrador to make his fortune trapping foxes and learnt from Eskimos how to quick-freeze (when food is frozen really quickly, only small ice-crystals form, so no damage is done to the food’s cell walls, preserving its texture and flavour when defrosted). In 1923 Birdseye founded his eponymous company with an investment of $7 for an electric fan, buckets of brine and blocks of ice.


Despite what we were taught at school, there are five, not four, basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and… umami, which is the taste of protein in meat, cheese and fish. It was first identified by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 in Japan, but was only confirmed as the true “fifth taste” in 2000, when researchers at the University of Miami reported their discovery of a protein receptor on the human tongue. “Umami” is derived from umai, the word for tasty in Japanese. Ikeda discovered that the umami taste was caused by the salt of glutamic acid, monosodium glutamate, or MSG, as it’s now known. Ikeda was shrewd: he sold the recipe to Ajinomoto Company, which still holds a third of the 1.5-million-ton global market for synthetic MSG. The importance of protein in our diet means that it makes sense for umami to create a pleasurable sensation in our brains, unlike bitter, for example, which indicates danger. A robust, mature red wine apparently tastes just like umami.


In 1969, William Safire, President Nixon’s speech-writer, wrote a speech entitled “In the Event of Moon Disaster”. This was pre-recorded and filmed to be used if Armstrong and Aldrin became marooned and failed to return to Earth. The speech began: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.” It ended with a space-age take on Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier: “For every human being who looks up at the Moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”


The popular idea of six degrees of separation, by which someone can be connected to anyone else in just six steps, emerged from the experiments of Stanley Milgram at Harvard. In 1967, Milgram sent packages to 160 random Nebraskans and asked them to forward each one to someone who would be better placed to get it to the target recipient, a Boston stockbroker. The majority, Milgram claimed, made it to Boston within six steps. The phrase was popularised by the eponymous play (and later film) written in 1990 by John Guare, inspired by the life of a conman called David Hampton, who posed as Sidney Poitier’s son and swindled many celebrities and New Yorkers out of thousands of dollars. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the popular US college game of the 1990s, in which actors were assigned a Bacon number based on their career proximity to the ubiquitous actor, has inspired him to set up a charitable online social network called


When Napoleon visited the Great Pyramids in Egypt, he asked to be left alone in the Kings’ Chamber; when he emerged, he was visibly shaken. Asked what had happened, he made no comment but asked for the incident not to be mentioned again. On Napoleon’s deathbed, a friend asked him what had really happened, but the former emperor shook his head and said: “No. What’s the use? You’d never believe me.”


The term private eye comes from the logo of Pinkerton, a US detective agency established in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, who was responsible for foiling a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The logo is an eye embellished with the words “We Never Sleep”. Throughout the 19th century, companies would hire Pinkerton operatives to combat worker’s strikes, until the Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893, which prevented a Pinkerton detective from working for the government. Pinkerton agents were used to track down Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.


A quarter of all words used in English are the nine words: the, of, and, to, it, you, be, have and will.


The last two speakers of the Mexican language Zoque, now in their 70s, refuse to speak to one another.


In adverts, the hands of a clock or watch usually show the time as 10.10 to display the logo of the manufacturer to best effect by framing it between the hands.


Canaletto’s real name was Canal. Caravaggio’s real first name was Michelangelo and his patron was Del Monte. Che Guevara’s father was called Ernesto Lynch (his family were from Galway). Geronimo’s real name was Goyathley – “He Who Yawns”. Stalin’s Georgian name was Iosif Vissiaronovitch Dzhugashvili. Dzhuga means “rubbish” in Ossetian. Stalin, “Man of Steel” in Russian, was first used by other Bolsheviks behind his back.


For 122 years, the Russian head of state has alternatively been either bald or hairy. It is said to be one reason why Putin (bald) won the election to succeed Yeltsin (hairy). The sequence is: Alexander II (hairy), Alexander III (bald), Nicholas II (hairy), Lenin (bald), Stalin (hairy), Krushchev (bald), Brezhnev (hairy), Andropov (bald), Chernenko (hairy), Gorbachev (bald), Yeltsin (hairy), Putin (bald). The recently elected President of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, has a lovely head of hair.

Language: A Natural History

July 6, 2008

While you read this page you are engaging in an activity that, although we take it for granted, is truly wondrous. I am referring of course to language. If Martians were to land on our planet what would they make of the approximately 6,000 languages that we speak? Maybe they would think that the differences between them are rather superficial and what they have in common is much more significant. I do tend to agree with Chomsky (his political views are another matter) about the existence of a universal grammar.

Why do we have 6,000 languages? Wouldn’t one be enough? We all know the famous story of the Tower of Babel from the Bible. It’s a beautiful story but we need something a little more solid. Language can and does evolve in multiple directions and these variations appear to be totally random. If we had all lived together in one small place perhaps we would speak only one language but humans have settled all over our planet. In Papua New Guinea there are something like 850 languages for a population of just six million. This represents more than 10% of the world’s languages. Their harsh geography has created isolated communities – perfect breeding grounds for variety in language. Compare that to Europe with 300 million people and fewer than 50 native languages.

The history pf language is inextricably linked with events such as the invention of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent. We got cities, states bureaucracy trade and many other things. This rapid growth made it essential to communicate not just with family and your immediate circle. Now you also had to haggle with trading partners and to negotiate peace with your enemies. This was when languages began to mingle. Sometimes it was in a voluntary way and other times through war and conquest. This was when as Nicholas Ostler has described it, “languages first began to colonise, infiltrate and exterminate other languages”. So we can blame it on the farmers. Why were there winners and losers? A language needs an army. English is not the world’s lingua franca because of the beauty of Shakespeare’s English. The role of force is not always a simple question though. The Romans occupied Britain for hundreds of years but left almost no trace on the speech of the islanders.

Some of these tribal languages are absolutely fascinating. When few people speak a language its grammar is usually incredibly complex. A lot of people think that the languages spoken in Africa and the Pacific islands are primitive and simple. Nothing could be further from the truth. We all know that Spanish has two genders and that German has three but Fula, a language spoken in West Africa has no less than 16 genders. The genders and declensions that you find in Latin are a piece of cake compared to some of these tribal languages. English represents the opposite phenomenon because although it is not easy to learn it less complicated than other Germanic languages such as German and Swedish and Icelandic. This may be because in England in the period of the Viking invasions there was a lot second-language learning, which tends to lead to a simplification of structures to facilitate communication.

We have spoken about the 6,000 languages in the world but the tendency is surely to the reduction of this number due to globalisation and powerful. The vast majority of people speak what linguist John McWhorter has called the “big bad Berlitz languages”. There are many more languages that have 5,000 or fewer speakers and these are under threat. The loss of this linguistic diversity is indeed a tragedy. Many of these languages are only oral and when they disappear there is no record of their existence. At least when animals die off they leave a testament in the fossil record. However, a situation like Papua New Guinea us just not practical. A state needs a common language that everyone speaks. This doesn’t mean that minority languages have to be trampled on. Languages are beautiful things and they should not be used to foment hatred or divide people.

Further reading
Empires of the Word Nicholas Ostler
The Power of Babel John McWhorter
An interview with Steven Pinker about his book The Stuff of Thought.(AUDIO STREAMING) Click here.


Some quotes about language

July 6, 2008

UG [universal grammar] may be regarded as a characterization of the genetically determined language faculty. One may think of this faculty as a ‘language acquisition device,’ an innate component of the human mind that yields a particular language through interaction with present experience, a device that converts experience into a system of knowledge attained: knowledge of one or another language. Noam Chomsky


Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. Benjamin Lee Whorf


Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


That woman speaks eight languages and can’t say no in any of them. Dorothy Parker


A language is a dialect with an army and navy. Anonymous


A different language is a different vision of life.  Federico Fellini


Learn a new language and get a new soul.  Czech Proverb


Male supremacy is fused into the language, so that every sentence both heralds and affirms it. Andrea Dworkin


Language is a form of human reason, which has its internal logic of which man knows nothing. Claude Levi-Strauss


We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language. Oscar Wilde


The three-year-old, then, is a grammatical genius – master of most constructions, obeying rules far more often than flouting them, respecting language universals, erring in sensible, adult-like ways, and avoiding many kinds of errors altogether. Steven Pinker


Every living language, like the perspiring bodies of living creatures, is in perpetual motion and alteration; some words go off, and become obsolete; others are taken in, and by degrees grow into common use; or the same word is inverted to a new sense or notion, which in tract of time makes an observable change in the air and features of a language, as age makes in the lines and mien of a face. Richard Bentley


Language is an archaeological vehicle … the language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history. Russell Hoban


I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.  King Charles V