Why Historians Don’t Predict the Future

As we near the end of Colin Woodard’s 2010 publication American Nations, we find ourselves at the book’s epilogue. I’ve read this epilogue several times and, quite honestly, I find myself struggling to put my thoughts into words. Let us start by reading a few select quotes from Woodard:

If the power struggles among the nations have profoundly shaped North America’s history over the past four centuries, what might they hold for us in the future? Will the political map [consist of] . . . a Balkanized collection of nation-states along the lines of twentieth-century Europe; a loose E.U.-style confederation of sovereign nation-states stretching from Monterrey, Mexico, to the Canadian Arctic; a unitary state run according to biblical law as interpreted by the spiritual heirs of Jerry Falwell; a postmodern utopian network of semisovereign, self-sustaining agricultural villages freed by technological innovations from the need to maintain larger governments at all? No one, if he or she is being both thoughtful and honest, has any idea.

If there’s one thing Woodard gets right here, it’s that we have no idea what the future holds. Yet for some reason this fact doesn’t keep Woodard from . . . predicting the future. To wit:

One scenario that might preserve the status quo for the United States would be for its nations to follow the Canadian example and compromise on their respective cultural agendas for the sake of unity. Unfortunately, neither the Dixie Bloc nor the Northern alliance is likely to agree to major concessions to the other. The majority of Yankees, New Netherlanders, and Left Coasters [the “Northern Alliance”] simply aren’t going to accept living in an evangelical Christian theocracy with weak or nonexistent social labor, or environmental protections, public school systems, and checks on corporate power in politics. Most Deep Southerners will resist paying higher taxes to underwrite the creation of a public health insurance system; a universal network of well-resourced, unionized, and avowedly secular public schools; tuition-free public universities where science–not the King James Bible–guides inquiry.

Yes, Woodard just argued that most Deep Southerners would take issue with funding public universities that use science as form of inquiry. Continuing:

Another outside possibility is that, faced with a major crisis, the federation’s leaders will betray their oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, the primary adhesive holding the union together. In the midst of, say, a deadly pandemic outbreak or the destruction of several cities by terrorists, a fearful public might condone the suspension of civil rights, the dissolution of Congress, or the incarceration of Supreme Court Justices . . . with the constitution abandoned, the federation could well disintegrate, forming one or more confederations of like-minded regions . . . If this extreme scenario came to pass, North America would likely be a far more dangerous, volatile, and unstable place, inviting meddling from imperial powers overseas [wouldn’t THAT be ironic!]. If this scenario of crisis and breakup seems far-fetched, consider the fact that, forty-years ago, the leaders of the Soviet Union would have thought the same thing about their continent-spanning federation.

Continuing:

Perhaps the federation will simply reach accommodation over time as its component nations come to agree that the status quo isn’t serving anyone well. A time might come when the only issue on which the nations find common ground is the need to free themselves from one another’s veto power. Perhaps they’d join together on Capitol Hill to pass laws and constitutional amendments granting more powers to the states or liquidating many of the functions of the central government. The United States might continue to exist, but its powers might be limited to national defense, foreign policy, and the negotiation of interstate trade agreements. It would, in other words, resemble the European Union or the original Confederation of 1781.

And finally:

But one thing is certain: if Americans seriously want the United States to continue to exist in something like its current form, they had best respect the fundamental tenets of our unlikely union. It cannot survive if we end the separation of church and state or institute the Baptist equivalent of Sharia law.

"What in the world are you talking about?!!!"

Henry Rollins asks, “What in the world are you talking about?!!!”

Here, in the epilogue of American Nations, we see most clearly that Colin Woodard isn’t really interested in understanding the past or thinking historically. Indeed, Woodard baldly indicates that he’s only interested in using the past to analyze present-day behavior and even predict the future. Whatever Woodard is trying to accomplish here, it certainly isn’t historical understanding. In fact, one crucial element of historical thinking is understanding that historians are not in the business of predicting the future. Once again turning to Gordon Wood, we see that:

To understand the past in all its complexity is to acquire historical wisdom and humility and indeed a tragic sense of life. A tragic sense does not mean a sad or pessimistic sense of life; it means a sense of the limitations of life. Unlike sociology, political science, psychology, and the other social sciences, which try to breed confidence in managing the future, history tends to inculcate skepticism about our ability to manipulate and control purposefully our destinies. [From The Purpose of the Past, 14]

When we turn on the television news at night, we often see special guest talking heads/pundits sharing their thoughts. Of all the pundits you’ve seen, there’s a good chance that many of them (if not most) come from the social sciences, especially if they’re economists or political scientists. The likelihood of seeing a historian, on the other hand, is slim. Why is this? Because social scientists are in the business of predicting the future. Whenever the economy lags, we see economists predicting future market trends. Whenever we have an upcoming election, we see political scientists predicting future electoral winners. Indeed, one of the reasons the news captivates so much of our attention is that we ourselves are obsessed with “managing the future.”

No matter how educated your prediction may be, however, at the end of the day it’s just a guess.  Whether predicting future market trends, political developments, or the winner of the Super Bowl, the television pundits get it wrong a lot of the time. When they get it right, oftentimes the biggest contributing factor is luck, a fact Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues in The Black SwanMuch of this discussion goes back to John Lewis Gaddis’ theories of reductionist and ecological views of reality. The reductionist view (one often embraced by social scientists, including Woodard) focuses on understanding parts of a whole. This focus is distinctly exclusive, removing perceived “anomalies” from a scholarly analysis in the interest of finding trends and building predictive models that purport to tell us what the future will bring. Applying the reductionist view to American Nations, we can see that various historical “anomalies”–cultural conflict in Kansas, cultural developments in south-central Florida, Alaska, and Hawaii, and instances in which regional leaders such as Yankee Franklin Pierce or Southerner Jimmy Carter held “unconventional” political views for their region–are removed from the narrative in the interest of building a predictive model.

The ecological view (one embraced by historians), on the other hand, aims to understand the fundamental whole. This focus is distinctly inclusive and aims to account for the messiness, complexity, and context for explaining historical causality. In sum, historians don’t predict the future because they’re cognizant of the fact that history itself is unpredictable. Nothing is inevitable, nothing occurred “just because.” Likewise, historians understand that past trends don’t necessarily translate to future outcomes and that the observation of one event does not mean it will occur again in the future. Who, for example, would predict that the New York Yankees will win next year’s World Series simply because they’ve won the most World Series titles in the past? Going back to Woodard, what good is it to predict the possibility of future crisis and breakup in the United States because leaders in the Soviet Union at one time couldn’t perceive future crisis and breakup in their own nation? That’s as bad a case of apples and oranges as I’ve ever seen in a scholarly study.

Colin Woodard’s predictions may or may not occur in the future. Nobody can prove those theories one way or the other, and I believe that’s a huge problem for assessing quality scholarship. At the end of the day, these predictions tell us more about Colin Woodard than they tell us about what may or may not happen in the future of North America.

Cheers

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4 responses

  1. Nick,
    I’ve been reading your review of “American Nations” with growing interest. Not only is the book obviously a poor excuse for history, but your review is fantastically written. You are able to directly deal with his arguments and refute them.
    In this essay I particularly enjoyed Woodward describing Baptist beliefs as “Sharia” and that southerners were against funding higher education. As a Christian living in the South and attending a (history) graduate program I was highly amused…and insulted. It is continuously frustrating to find the South as the whipping boy for many Americans. Just because many southerners are Christian does not make them “bad” people who want the separation of Church and State to cease to exist (the separation of course exists to protect the church, not the state).
    Excellent point on historians avoiding predictions of the future. While I agree with you I must say that I do enjoy speculating (to myself). There is something fun about pretending you can see the future. That being said I would never put it in a book as if I knew that my theories were fact.
    Thanks for great writing as always.

    1. Hi Nathan,

      Thank you for the kind words. I too found Woodard’s comments on Southerners extremely problematic. It’s as if he thinks all Southerners act like Jerry Falwell and hate science. I’ve been to various parts of the South numerous times and I have relatives who live there. Every time I’ve gone, I’ve met all different kinds of people. Then again, when you choose to analyze what you perceive as the “dominant culture” in a given region, as Woodard does in “American Nations,” you are bound to leave a lot of people out of your analysis.

      Thanks again, Nathan. Hope your semester has gotten off to a good start. We are freezing here in Indianapolis.

      1. The semester has been great and sometimes frustrating. This is my fourth semester in Grad school and for the first time I am taking joint classes (both graduate and undergraduate students enrolled). These mixed courses can be quite challenging. As an undergrad they were great because they elevated the level of discourse, but as a Grad student it feels quite the opposite, and I learn nothing from discussion. Last night we spent 3 hours summarizing what we read. Do you have classes like this in Indiana?
        Speaking of weather, we had snow last night! A whole 1/4 inch which is swiftly melting.

      2. Hi Nathan,

        By pure coincidence, this is also my fourth (and final) semester of grad school, and I too am taking a class that is joint undergrad/grad for the first time. This class has been great and extremely enlightening so far: The History of Science and Technology Since 1750 http://histscitech.wordpress.com/ I can tell that some undergrads are struggling with the content, but I think the discussions have been good so far, and I like the fact that the class is interdisciplinary. We have history, science, business, and philosophy majors in the class.

        Congrats on the snow! We’ve had close to 25 inches for the month of January and it’s exactly one degree outside right now.

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