Replaying History


One of my favorite fiction genres is alternative history.  The basic idea of alternative history is to write a story set in an alternate universe where history played out differently.  Popular alternate histories include those where the Nazis win World War II, the USSR wins the Cold War, and the Confederate States of America win the American Civil War.  But most of the writing in this genre has a serious flaw:  the author starts out by saying "wouldn't it be cool to write a story where X had happened instead of Y" and then works backwards to concoct historical events that will lead to the desired outcome.  No matter how good the story is, the history is often bad because at every stage the author went looking for a reason for things to go his way.

Being unsatisfied with most alternate histories, I like to play a historical "what if" game.  Rather than asking the question at the conclusion, though (like "what if the Nazis had won the war"), I ask it at an earlier moment, ideally one where chance played an important role.  What if Napoleon had been convinced not to invade Russia?  What if the Continental Army had not successfully retreated from New York?  What if Viking settlements in Newfoundland had not collapsed?  These are as opposed to "What if Napoleon had never been defeated?", "What if the Colonies had lost the American Revolutionary War?", and "What if Vikings had developed a thriving civilization in the Americas?".  I find that replaying history in this way a fun use of my analytical skills, but more importantly a good test of my rationality.

One of the most difficult things in thinking of an alternative history is to stay focused on the facts and likely outcomes.  It's easy to say "I'd really like to see a world where X happened" and then silently or overtly bias your thinking until you find a way to achieve the desired outcome.  Learning to avoid this takes discipline, especially in a domain like alternate history where there's no way to check if your reasoning turned out to be correct.  But unlike imagining the future, making an alternate history does have the real history to measure up against, so it provides a good training ground for futurist who don't want to wait 20 or 30 years to get feedback on their thinking.

Given all this, I have two suggestions.  One, this indicates that a good way to teach history and rational thinking at the same time would be to present historical data up to a set point, ask students to reason out what they think will happen next in history, and then reveal what actually happened and use the feedback to calibrate and improve our historical reasoning (which will hopefully provide some benefit in other domains).  Second, a good way to build experience applying the skills of rationality is publicly present and critique alternate histories.

In that vein, if there appears to be sufficient interest, I'll start doing a periodic article here dedicated to the discussion of some particular alternative history.  The discussion will be in the comments:  people can propose outcomes, then others can revise and critique and propose other outcomes, continuing the cycle until we hit a brick wall (not enough information, question asks something that would not have changed history, etc.) or come to a consensus.

What do you all think of this idea?