June 1, 2014

Purported Causation, as Evidence of Correlation

Bad history often builds on good chronology and historical fallacies often depend on recognizable sequence.

For starters, consider the 'great man' theory of history. Alexander the Great was not solely responsible for the ancient near east becoming a Hellenized region, but his contribution to that result is the most recognizable factor, aside from whether it should also be judged most significant. Of critical importance for this opinion is timing. At the very least, Alexander's campaign in the East appears to be the *first* significant factor which *began* a long process of gradual Hellenization. To inflate Alexander from a necessary cause to a sufficient cause of this widespread change, the erroneous historian must have readers who will not contest that Alexander's campaign at least did appear to accompany the beginning of memorable and recognizable change.

Consider also the Television and American Politics. It may or may not be demonstrably true that TV appearances helped John F Kennedy beat Richard Nixon for the Presidency in 1960, but the fact that this claim has been proffered with such popularity does at least indicate that American Televisions must have become somewhat ubiquitous before that pivotal election year. But of course, TV in the US is a lot older than that famous JFK-Nixon debate.

Occasionally I have heard it remarked (erroneously) that JFK was the first president on TV. Actually, that would be Franklin D Roosevelt, at the world's fair in 1939. Throughout the 40's, variety shows like Milton Berle's and Ed Sullivan's were broadcasting to less than 7 million TV sets. In 1953 an estimated 44 million tuned in for the first glimpse of Little Ricky on "I Love Lucy". Dwight Eisenhower even campaigned for reelection with several TV spots in 1956. But the famous 1960 debates were viewed by approximately 70 million of about 179 million US citizens. Less than half of America was even watching that night, but the growth of television had passed some sort of tipping point. 

Evidently, the memory of those televised debates became more significant at that point even for those with no TV at home because of a widespread discussion going on in the newspapers and elsewhere. The Nixon/Kennedy election was very close, and their first televised debate had been much talked about due to Nixon's poor appearance. When Nixon lost, narrowly, discussion gravitated toward Kennedy's TV advantage, and those talking points naturally blended with the previous memories of discussion during the debates, and a widespread impression was collectively reinforced. The story became popular that Kennedy won *because* of TV, and so JFK and Television became somehow joined together in America's collective memories. He was not the first televised president, but the popularity of this false impression does reflect something about the timing of television's development. 

Kennedy may not have won *because* of TV, but he did win *after* TV became commonplace.

And so, remarkably, a dubious story reflects a reliable chronology.

There's a well known fallacy called "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc" (after the fact, therefore because of the fact). Equally well known is the reliable mantra "Correlation does not imply causation". And narratives of all types have become dubious things to consider because to narrate is to sequence, selectively. But on the other hand, all these principles can be applied in the converse toward a minimal positivism... and that, at least, may be the process which has always provided us with the reliable *chronicles* that make outlines for our histories.

The best lies are based largely on truth, so a biased narrator or spin doctor will be most effective if they maintain a recognizable sequence of historical events and expend their artful efforts on massaging the significance of those events and inflating their causality. Ronald Reagan can only be praised for dismantling communism if people *at least* recognize that his engagement with Russia preceded Glastnost and Berlin's reunification. Yoko Ono cannot be blamed for destroying the Beatles unless everyone remembers that she did *at least* get involved with the band before their break-up actually occurred. Elvis Presley cannot be miscredited as the inventor of "Rock and Roll" except that several million people became aware of that musical genre only through Elvis' extreme popular acclaim and nationally televised showcase appearances. In two of these three examples, the bad history depends on precise chronology, and in the third case it's close enough to fool all but the specialists and aficionados

But the fastest way to discredit a claim of causality is to dispute the event sequence. If anyone could say, "Wait. Reagan wasn't president until after that happened!" or "John Lennon didn't meet Yoko until later." or "Elvis? Dude. Google Bill Haley." then the ability of the narrator to spin that particular bias would be severely compromised. However, in the case of Elvis vs Bill Haley, the question of which came first is rather different than the question of which was the first to became famous, both widely and wildly. As with Kennedy and Television, sometimes an imprecise chronology is an accurate refraction of historical development, from some particular angle.

But my overall thesis is quite simply this:

Narratives which are disputable simply in order and sequence do not tend to survive, and since the best spin doctors are always trying to build credibility, their best option is to build upon recognizable continuities and a recognized sequence of things. 

And my prediction is this:

Should anyone begin to catalog these kinds of things, it may well become demonstrably evident that an awful lot of dubious history displays chronological reliability in its major aspects of narrative contingency.

Somebody should start working out theory and methods to this possible end, ASAP.


What are you waiting for........?

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