Every now and then I’m asked (by a family member or friend) whether I have any interest in reading or watching alternate histories. The last round of this questioning came following the premiere of Amazon’s Man in the High Castle. I imagine I’ll get another round if HBO’s Confederate (an alternate history about the South not losing the Civil War) ever makes it to air. My answer has always been a resounding, “No.” I often reply that understanding what happened in history is hard enough without introducing alternate histories into the subject matter. Mostly though, I don’t read or watch alternate histories because I like my free time to filled with something other than history. It’s why I watch Star Trek or The Good Place or read John le Carré novels. Sometimes I want to think about something other than history.
In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about psychological judgment and biases, decision making, behavioral economics, and the science of prediction. Reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving, Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasting, Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, and books by Dan Ariely and others, has helped shape the way I think about the world. There are times when I rue my academic fate and wonder if I should have been a behavioral psychologist instead. I’ve thought about the way human biases influence our decision making and ability to predict the future. Being a historian, I’ve also tried to consider the way these biases might affect the way we view the past.
In thinking about the insights offered by the behavioral sciences, I’ve come around on alternate histories. They can be useful thought exercises, for considering how history might have played out differently. Sometimes we, as historians, can be too myopic in only focusing on what happened as opposed to what might have happened. In Superforecasting, Tetlock relays a Kahneman thought experiment that highlights how easily the 20th century could have turned out differently:
Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Each came to power backed by a political movement that would never have accepted a female leader, but each man’s origins can be traced to an unfertilized egg that had a 50% chance of being fertilized by different sperm cells and producing a female zygote that would become a female fetus and finally a female baby. That means there was only a 12.5% chance that all three leaders would be born male, and an 87.5% chance that at least one of them would be born female.
Kahneman’s counterfactual scenario reminds us just how contingent our history truly is. For historians trained to think about the past and how it came about, thinking about alternate histories, as I mentioned above, can be just too much to bear. After all, yes there was an 87.5% chance that one of them would be born a girl, but they weren’t, so what’s the point of pretending otherwise? And even if we wanted to play out this line of thinking, it would mean that we’d have to examine every possible outcome from every possible occurrence in the lives of these three men. These millions of millions of permutations would make the whole thing nothing more than guesswork. In the end, all of the intellectual exercises in the world can’t change what has already happened.
Yet this dismissive approach is precisely the wrong one to take. We can engage in alternate histories without being bogged down in an endless cycle of what-ifs?. In the social sciences, you can run experiments, test variables, and then test them again until you get a big enough sample size to draw conclusions. We don’t have that luxury in history. All of our sample sizes are one. We can’t rerun the American Revolution a hundred or thousand times and compare the outcomes. But we can get around this sample size problem–comparative histories. They’re are the closest thing we have in the historical field to rerunning an experiment over again.
Let’s take a hypothetical. Say we’re interested what happens to a society after it emancipates its slaves. First, we’d need to come up with some examples of societies that have freed their slaves or other unfree labor forces—the U.S., Cuba, Brazil, countries in the Caribbean, South Africa, or Russia (there are plenty of others as well). Starting from that initial list we can narrow it down further based on whatever criteria we want—percentage of slaves in the population, shared ancestry, or something else. Then we can set the two (you could do more) against one another and see what shakes loose. A comparison between the United States and South Africa could be interesting. After all, they share a lot of historical similarities—English colonial rule, independence efforts, and the promotion of a sense of rugged individualism. But they also have some key differences, whites were the majority in the United States, while they were a minority in South Africa. We can then see which similarities and differences have the biggest impact on their countries respective historical development.
These kinds of comparisons allow us to engage in a form of alternate history. They also can help highlight what historical forces are unique (or not) to the histories of nations and states. This allows us to combine the strengths of historical analysis and those in the social sciences.
I’m still not watching Man in the High Castle though.
 Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (New York: Crown Publishers, 2015), 248-249.