When we look back at history and explain why the world is the way it is, we rarely attribute specific causes and results to chance. We don’t say that a group of terrorists happened to choose to fly planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11. We don’t say that a new technology happened to come along to advance the economy. And we don’t say that a war between two countries happened to break out. But in some ways it would make more sense for us to look back at history and view events as chance contingencies. Steven Pinker argues that we should do this when we look back at history’s wars.
Specifically, when we take a statistical view of the history of war, we see that wars follow a Poisson distribution. When we record all the wars in human history we see lots of short intervals between wars and fewer long gaps between wars. When we look back at history and try to explain wars from a causal standpoint, we don’t look at the pauses and gaps between wars. We look instead at the triggering factors and buildup to war. But what the statistics argue is that we are often seeing causal patterns and narratives where none truly exist. Pinker writes, “the Poisson nature of war undermines historical narratives that see constellations in illusory clusters.”
We see one war as leading to another war. We see a large war as making people weary of fighting and death, ultimately leading to a large period of peace. We create narratives which explain the patterns we perceive, even if the patterns are not really there. Pinker continues,
“Statistical thinking, particularly an awareness of the cluster illusion, suggests that we are apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history – to think that what did happen must have happened because of historical forces like cycles, crescendos, and collision courses.”
We don’t like to attribute history to chance events. We don’t like to attribute historical decisions to randomness. We like cohesive narratives that weave together multiple threads of history, even when examples of random individual choices or chance events shape the historical threads and narratives. Statistics shows us that the patterns we see are not always real, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to pull patterns out of the randomness or the Poisson distribution of history anyway.