Should We Despair?

Image by atk work. Shutterstock.com

There is so much gnashing of teeth today. About the future, about the past, about the truth of today.

It’s as if we’ve all been cursed like Cassandra, the daughter of the King of Troy.

Cassandra warned the Trojans not to wheel the wooden horse inside the walls of her city. She spoke out to the king, to the priests, to the people. She cried. She begged and…

No one listened to her.

Despite her rare, god-given ability to know the future, the Trojans ignored her.

We know how things turned out. Her city, Troy, after surviving a decade-long seige, was sacked by the Greeks. Without a fight. In one night. Cassandra, despite all her sincere efforts, was brutalized by Ajax and then dragged away by King Agamemnon, as part of his treasure.

How awful.

Many Americans feel just as ignored and beaten-up as Cassandra.

The reason that we know so much about Cassandra — that she actually saw the future accurately and that she was so ignored and abused — is that hers is a story of literature told by Homer, Aeschylus, and others.

Invented stories are knowable. People go to bars and parties and participate in trivia games about the events of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.

The details of history, humankind, and the future are, however, fair game for vivid debate. Their facts are far more unclear.

Having lived for five decades on this planet, I have come to realize that I know a very small part of what there is to know. And that much of what I think I know is only partially true. Recognizing my limitations, I am hesitant to make grand assertions.

There are, however, two on my list:

  • We humans are *terrible* at predicting the future.
  • We humans are *terrible* at seeing the truths of the past.

Despite their negative connotations, I find these truisms mildly comforting.

We humans are *terrible* at seeing the truths of the past

My Dad loved the history of WWII.

The favorite big, historical point that he pulled out from his studies was that “appeasement” caused WWII. Dad often said, “If only they had not tried to appease that madman, the war would never have started!”

Despite his studies, Dad barely looked past the beaches of Normandy.

It would not have taken much for him to have learned that at the same time the US was “appeasing” Germany, the United States was choosing the “no appeasement” strategy with Japan. In July 1941, the US had seized all Japanese assets in the US and blocked access to 88% of Japan’s oil sources. Five months later in December, Japan launched its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Both approaches to avoiding war (appeasement and no appeasement) led to wars of great magnitude. Conservative estimates indicate that 25 million people lost their lives in Asia during WWII, as many as 50 million civilians in China. European deaths were in a comparable range with 30 million tallied among USSR civilians and soldiers alone.

Despite the similar results of both the “appeasement” and “no appeasement” strategies, I can say that in my grade school, high school, and historical/political discussions growing up, I rarely heard any cause for WWII cited other than “appeasement.”

As my education proceeded, I came to understand more about the root causes of WWI and the interwar period: burdensome reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles, the humiliation of the Germans, the Great Depression, hyper-inflation, and so on.

Even then, it was years before I understood that the US war with Japan in WWII had any cause other than raw Japanese imperialism.

It was as if two generation of Americans had forgotten the US “no appeasement” strategy in Asia leading up to WWII.

We humans are *terrible* at predicting the future

Humans are generally bad at forecasting complex things. It’s almost as if we’re wired against accurate prediction.

Sure, marketers can develop confidence about consumer response to a given call-to-action. And sociologists, when provided detailed demographic data, are pretty good at profiling the person you will marry, your likelihood of depression, and an array of surprising things.

There are even hopeful signs that people can get better at making predictions. The most trained (in domains of knowledge, probability, and bias avoidance) and supported (in effective teams of skilled peers) can predict the future significantly better than a flip of a coin.

Humans thus far have proven best at predictions that can be modeled and measured closely. After centuries of observation, with satellite sensors all around the earth, and supercomputer calculators constantly updating the math, we can deliver a 5-day weather forecast with about 80% accuracy.

Ten days out, though, our weather predictions are right only half the time!

How can humans possibly be that good at predicting the next war or the nature of human life in a generation?

How can understanding these human limitations be comforting?

Headline after headline suggests we are doomed.

Perhaps we are. Humanity faces a lot of challenges.

But one of our real problems might be a universal reality:

People aren’t that good at understanding the past.

And are even worse about predicting the future.

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