Stranger Than History

Suppose I told you that I knew for a fact that the following statements were true:

  • If you paint yourself a certain exact color between blue and green, it will reverse the force of gravity on you and cause you to fall upward.
  • In the future, the sky will be filled by billions of floating black spheres.  Each sphere will be larger than all the zeppelins that have ever existed put together.  If you offer a sphere money, it will lower a male prostitute out of the sky on a bungee cord.
  • Your grandchildren will think it is not just foolish, but evil, to put thieves in jail instead of spanking them.

You'd think I was crazy, right?

Now suppose it were the year 1901, and you had to choose between believing those statements I have just offered, and believing statements like the following:

  • There is an absolute speed limit on how fast two objects can seem to be traveling relative to each other, which is exactly 670616629.2 miles per hour.  If you hop on board a train going almost this fast and fire a gun out the window, the fundamental units of length change around, so it looks to you like the bullet is speeding ahead of you, but other people see something different.  Oh, and time changes around too.
  • In the future, there will be a superconnected global network of billions of adding machines, each one of which has more power than all pre-1901 adding machines put together.  One of the primary uses of this network will be to transport moving pictures of lesbian sex by pretending they are made out of numbers.
  • Your grandchildren will think it is not just foolish, but evil, to say that someone should not be President of the United States because she is black.

Based on a comment of Robin's:  "I wonder if one could describe in enough detail a fictional story of an alternative reality, a reality that our ancestors could not distinguish from the truth, in order to make it very clear how surprising the truth turned out to be."

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It might be worthwhile to list statements about present-day society that would have seemed incredible to me at various times in the past. For example:

  1. That nobody has been to the moon since 1972.

  2. That the Soviet Union no longer exists and there has been no nuclear war. (One or the other would have been plausible but not both.)

  3. That we're still using fossil fuels on a large scale.

  4. President Ronald Reagan.

  5. That there is a major communications network that is not run by any single organization.

  6. That there would be a high-quality computer operating system based on free software.

"1. That nobody has been to the moon since 1972."

Wow. I never realized it'd been that long - I grew up with that as part of my history, and never realized that it all occurred before I was born.

Stranger than World War II?

Let's start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn't look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn't get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.

I wouldn't even mind the lack of originality if they weren't so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we're supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren't that evil. And that's not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.

HT: Volokh

Several of those became staples of fiction because of their association with World War II, so this is sort of like complaining that Shakespeare is full of cliches. If the Nazis had eaten Jews instead of putting them in death camps, the past 70 years of fiction would have been full of cannibal stormtroopers.

"You can actually give a semi-plausible justification of special relativity based on what was known in 1901."

You can give a semi-plausible justification for anything. It was obvious at the time that our knowledge was incomplete, but the specific way in which our knowledge was incomplete was still a mystery. It is very easy to invent a plausible-sounding quack theory of physics; that is why we have the Crackpot Index.

Well, the key equation of special relativity had already been written down in 1901 as the Lorentz contraction. People just hadn't thought of interpreting it so literally.

But the larger point is still valid. Change the date to 1894 and it would be a complete novelty.

I get unsolicited email offering to genetically modify rats to my specifications.

I guess this is evidence that we live in a sf novel. Thanks to spam the world's most powerful supercomputer cluster is now run by criminals: Maybe it is by Vernor Vinge. Although the spam about buying Canadian steel in bulk (with extra alloys thrown in if I buy more than 150 tons) might on the other hand indicate that it is an Ayn Rand novel.

This whole issue seems to be linked to the question of how predictable the future is. Given that we get blindsided by fairly big trends the problem might not be lack of information nor the chaotic nature of the world, but just that we are bad at ignoring historical clutter. Spam is an obvious and logical result of an email system based on free email and a certain fraction of potential customers for whatever you sell. It ought to have been predictable in the earliest 90's when the non-academic Net was spreading. But at the time even making predictions about the economics of email would have been an apparently unrewarding activity, so it was ignored in favor of newsgroup management.

Maybe the strangeness of the future is just a side effect of limited attention rather than limited intelligence or prediction ability. The strangeness of the past is similarly caused by limited attention to historical facts (i.e. rational ignorance, who cares to understand the victorian moral system?), making actual historical events look odd to us (Archduke Franz Ferdinand insisted on being sewn into his clothes for a crease-free effect, which contributed to him dying and triggering WWI).

I could believe in the spanking thing happening pretty easily. (I could believe it pretty easily. It wouldn't happen easily.) A society with a different approach to deterrence/punishment, a different view of the relative cruelty of prison vs. corporal punishment, etc. The others require violations of our concepts of physics, economics. Changing the punishment structure doesn't violate our ideas of human nature/psychology, etc.

A while back, Marvel Comics put out a "2099" group of books. The premise of the "Punisher 2099" series was that the civil tort system had replaced the criminal justice system entirely. A violent Paris Hilton type murders Punisher's entire family, and he goes vigilante.

Although, I guess it compares fairly with a black person becoming President in 1901. A few people with broad knowledge might find it possible but radically unlikely. It's a fair cop, and shame on

dearieme: "Given that WWII showed that race could be dynamite, it's surely astonishing that so many rich countries have permitted mass immigration by people who are not only of different race, but often of different religion. Even more astonishing that they've allowed some groups to keep immigrating even after the early arrivers from those groups have proved to be failures, economically or socially. Did anyone predict that 60 years ago?"

I thought that the excessive tolerances and the aversion to distinguish groups of people based on factual differences are traits that developed as a result of oversensitization from the events of WWII. Hitler's people engaged in cruel and unjust discrimination, so all discrimination is now cruel and unjust. Hitler's people (and others before them) engaged in cruel and gruesome eugenics experiments, so all eugenics are cruel and gruesome.

If Hitler did cruel experiments using pasta, pasta would now be known to be bad for everyone.

Jim Crowe laws were there up until 1965, two decades after the war. If there really was such an over-sensitization, this wouldn't be the case. Clearly, they weren't sensitized enough. You'd have a hard time linking this to WWII.

What are the examples you can give of such excessive tolerances and aversion to distinguish groups of people based on factual differences without resorting to generalizing, and instead judging each individual separately? In my opinion, it's very hard to be over tolerant. It's clear as day that George Zimmerman wouldn't have shot that kid dead if he was white. Even if it is true that black men have a predisposition to violence, that doesn't mean the kid deserved the bias against him.

I think it is this thought that drives the anti-discrimination political movement. It's the idea that people are more than members of their races. More than the WWII, it's just how the rise of individuality in the Western world would go forward. This also explains why Russia is still rampantly discriminating against all sorts of people, be it women, or gays, or minorities. They were involved in the WWII too, but clearly it hasn't caused any over-sensitization.

Other than that, there's the more obvious fact that among the people who are against Affirmative Action, Immigration, Disparate Impact Doctrine etc. are people like Pat Buchanan, who clearly doesn't have the best interests of protected groups in his heart. So you can't blame people for trying to be excessively tolerant so that they can counter the people who are excessively intolerant.

You can actually give a semi-plausible justification of special relativity based on what was known in 1901. Maxwell's equations are fundamentally incompatible with...

Yes, this is the chain of logic that Einstein followed in 1905. But it was followed in 1905, not 1901, despite plenty of other physicists focusing on the question.

There's a reason why I did not list the "semi-plausible justification" in my account of the Bizarre Speed Limit. People typically try to judge absurdity by surface features, without in-depth study of a topic.

Unnamed, remember that the histories we read promote particular events to prominence, while all others fade into the background; but to the people alive at the time, there are plenty of distractions.

I agree that future events of the most "absurd" sort are often predicted by at least some specialists paying very close attention to the field. This does not interfere with the lesson that I personally draw from history, which is that you have to go very deep and very technical in order to evaluate the possibility of a future event - surface absurdity counts for nothing.

Length contraction was proposed by George FitzGerald in 1889, in response to the Michelson-Morley experiment, and it gained greater circulation in the physicist community after Hendrik Lorentz independently proposed it in 1892. I imagine that most top physicists would have been familiar with it by 1901. Lorentz's paper included the ideas that the relative motion of reference frames was important, and that funny things were going on with time (like non-simultaneity in different reference frames), and his 1899 follow-up included time dilation equations (as did a less-known 1897 paper by Joseph Larmor). I'm not sure if people familiar with this work saw c as the universal speed limit, but the length contraction equations (which imply imaginary length for v greater than c) suggest that this proposal wouldn't strike them as crazy (and they would have recognized the number as c, since estimates of the speed of light were accurate within less than 0.1% by then).

If you were actually living in 1901 and got a bunch of future predictions made by people of the time, and chose the ones with similar absurdity to the ones described above, chances are very unlikely that you'd end up with an accurate prediction. Pointing out that an accurate description of today would have sounded silly in 1901 is hindsight bias; most things that would have sounded silly in 1901 really were silly.

Also, although it doesn't show up too much in the predictions you chose, people in 1901 had much lower levels of rationality than people from the 20th century. For instance, I'd expect someone from 1901 to think gay marriage is absurd, because beliefs about that have a heavy religious component and religion ruled people's lives in 1901 in a way that it does not now.

(And some of the items are described in a way that seem stranger to people from 1901 than necessary. What if you described the Internet as a network which controls fax machines that displays pictures so fast that they looked like flipbooks?)

Also, although it doesn't show up too much in the predictions you chose, people in 1901 had much lower levels of rationality than people from the 20th century. For instance, I'd expect someone from 1901 to think gay marriage is absurd, because beliefs about that have a heavy religious component and religion ruled people's lives in 1901 in a way that it does not now.

First even 1901 atheists would consider gay marriage absurd. Also, in order to establish that this constitutes a lower level of rationality, you need to do more then show that their beliefs differ from ours, after all they looking at us would conclude that we are being irrational for not considering it absurd. What argument would you present to them for why they are wrong?

What argument would you present to them for why they are wrong?

It only does any good to present an argument to someone for why he is wrong if he is rational. If someone believes something for non-rational reasons, there may not be any argument that you could present that would convince him.