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The Dangers of Cognitive Bias in History

Cognitive Bias
Jeff Fynn-Paul
Written by Jeff Fynn-Paul

In this important article, Jeff Fynn-Paul explores the recent growth of bias and distortion in the humanities in general and in the study of History in particular. The author points to several forms of cognitive error and bias, including the wilful denial of evidence and mistakes in reasoning and inference, which currently deform historical research. Many historians are in thrall to forms of ‘groupthink’; those who are not find themselves excluded or denied opportunities because they have adopted a different view, even one supported by the evidence. The author argues that more rigorous training in scientific method and the identification of bias should be included in every course in the humanities.

Social scientists are blessed and cursed by the existence of human free will, which results in human society having a large element of what mathematicians call “chaos”.  Despite this, economists and political scientists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries took inspiration from Newton’s Laws and other scientific codifications of nature, striving mightily to come up with certain “laws” of history that were akin to the laws of science.  By far the most influential of these was Marxism, which under the guise of “systemic” capitalism, racism, patriarchy, consumerism, etc. still holds many historians in thrall to this day, despite the fact that nearly all of Marx’s “laws”, systems, and processes of history have been disproven time and again.

One of the reasons why Marx’s formulations continue to be so influential in historiography is that historians receive very little training on the methodologies of science, including on cognitive bias.  Historians claim the “social science” mantle only when it suits them, and most of the time they prefer to retreat under the umbrella of “the humanities”, which gives them a license to remain atheoretical.  At most, historians pick up a few whiffs of theory from fashionable sociologists and anthropologists.  They therefore tend to pick up whatever cognitive biases are whirling around in humanities departments of the day.  This renders them particularly susceptible to any number of common and easily-avoidable fallacies.

This lack of methodological training means that when historians do accuse one another of shoddy science, their toolkit of criticisms is surprisingly limited.  Most of the time they accuse their opponent of failing to cite the proper sources.  In more extreme cases they might accuse their opponent of “presentism,” i.e. of supposedly looking at the past in terms of the present.  This is what American Historical Association president James Sweet (correctly) accused much of the American academy of doing in his infamous September 2022 address.  History Reclaimed’s own Lawrence Goldman recently wrote a brilliant piece which shows how wokeism is indeed a form of presentism, which is ironically akin to the “Whig history” derided by generations of later twentieth-century historians.

But the maladies affecting the historical profession—the things which have made it so shockingly vulnerable to dogmatism, extremism, groupthink, bullying, and political faddism over the past few years, are well known to scientists and social scientists, even if they themselves struggle to root them out of their own scientific cultures.

The German theoretical physicist and science communicator Sabine Hossenfelder did a YouTube video on cognitive bias in the hard sciences which provides a surprisingly good starting point for historians seeking to understand what has gone wrong in their own scientific community.[1]  Hossenfelder has repeatedly railed against theoretical physicists for writing grant proposals for projects which they know have virtually no chance of succeeding.  Hossenfelder says that there is a culture within the physics community that rewards certain theories long after it has become apparent that they are not going to work.  In the historical community, similar prejudices and cultures of reinforcement create unscientific path dependencies, which make outcomes such as extreme wokeism much more likely.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these known biases, as Hossenfelder also points out, is that intelligence seems to make very little difference to a person’s susceptibility.  In fact, the more intelligent a person thinks they are, the more likely they might be to fall prey to cognitive bias.  This is because the fact that they are intelligent can make them even more susceptible to confirmation bias—the tendency to process information that reinforces their existing beliefs.

Attentional Bias

This bias, long recognised by psychologists, says that humans evolved to pay attention to information that other people are talking about.  As Hossenfelder says, if everyone is talking about the flu, then you are more likely to think that perhaps you ought to take extra precautions to avoid catching it yourself.

However, in the age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, this bias can strongly influence historians’ choice of research topic.  Because everyone was talking about the George Floyd riots in the summer of 2020, an entire generation of historians and their instructors collectively decided that they should research racism in the past.  This means that hundreds of other important topics were summarily dropped from research agendas, while the great majority of historians end up focusing on a single topic.  This contributes to a number of self-reinforcing negative-feedback loops, as we shall shortly see.

Social Reinforcement

This bias is related to Attentional Bias, but is more directly related to how opinions get formed inside a specialist community.  Another common term for this is “groupthink”.  This is what happens when a group of specialists talk primarily to one another, “reassuring each other that they are doing the right thing”; as Hossenfelder puts it, these people “develop a common narrative that is overly optimistic about their own research, and they will dismiss opinions from people outside their own community.  Groupthink makes it basically impossible for researchers to identify their own mistakes and therefore stands in the way of the self-correction that is so essential for science.”  We saw a major instance of this when the British Cabinet, during the first weeks of the Covid panic, collectively decided that lockdown would be their primary response to the disease.  As a result of their groupthink, no cost/benefit analysis was conducted, and dissenting voices were locked out of the decision-making process.  To further reinforce the new orthodoxy, dissenters were derided as quacks or lunatics, even if they had enjoyed the highest possible professional standing prior to Covid.

In the historical profession, an obvious instance of groupthink is what has occurred around the concept of “colonialism”.  For many years, post-colonial theorists argued that British and other European colonialism had both destroyed flourishing indigenous societies and prevented them from developing.  However, a healthy number of historians were always on hand to temper some of the more outrageous claims of the post-colonialists, who remained a minority.  With the rise of the BLM movement and its social media dominance in the 2010s, however, post-colonial theory quickly became the only acceptable interpretation of colonial history.  Empire was uniformly bad; and the most outrageous denials of historical fact were routinely accepted as long as these gelled with the prevailing narrative.  The result is that books like Nigel Biggar’s even-handed treatment of the British Empire have now come to be seen as extremist or “far right” by perhaps the majority of history students and younger historians when, just two decades ago, Biggar’s book would have been considered middle-of-the-road.

The social reinforcement bias, amplified by social media, has shifted the perceptions of the entire historical profession radically towards a certain species of leftism, and almost no historian has realised the seismic nature of this shift.  Most who have done so have quailed at the thought of exposing the emperor’s nakedness, knowing full well the penalties that await those who challenge groupthink.

Shared Information Bias

This bias has been identified by psychologists as a process in which we tend to believe “facts” which are shared by people that we know, while we tend to dismiss information that is only held by a few people, or by people that we do not know.

In history, this means that a lot of information that gets shared in social networks tends to be regarded as “fact,” while facts that no one is talking about get dismissed, even if they are germane to the conversation at hand.  For example, nearly everyone—including many historians who ought to know better—believes that European commanders spread smallpox blankets amongst the Native Americans continually throughout the colonial period, and that this practice was responsible for millions of deaths across the centuries.  I witnessed this a few weeks ago, when a group of very intelligent students was discussing colonialism; someone raised the phenomenon of smallpox blankets, and immediately, a chorus of other students agreed, made assenting noises, or otherwise reinforced the “truth” of the original speaker’s idea.  The only problem is that, in reality, the historians who have done the most research into the smallpox blanket phenomenon are on record as saying that the only clearly documented case occurred in 1763 outside of Fort Pitt, and that even then, it is unclear whether the blankets were actually delivered, let alone whether they were effective.  The commanders in question, Amherst and Bouquet, admitted that the plan might backfire, and that they might spread disease amongst themselves—which is likely a reason why this form of biological warfare was not in common use.

Even more interesting is the fact that Thomas Jefferson was an early adopter of the smallpox vaccine, and sent some of it west with Louis and Clark to help convince Indian peoples to get themselves vaccinated.  Andrew Jackson, the same president who is infamous for ordering the Trail of Tears debacle, actually oversaw a federal programme of mass inoculation against smallpox which began with the Indian Vaccination Act of 1832.  This act allocated the equivalent of about half a million of today’s dollars for the purpose of inoculating Native Americans who lived near white settlements, and were therefore most at risk from smallpox.

In reality, then, “smallpox blankets” are a thing which was occasionally talked about, but which had next to no impact on the spread of disease amongst indigenous people in North America, or anywhere else for that matter.  Moreover, throughout the nineteenth century, the Spanish, Latin American, and the American governments went to great lengths to get Native populations inoculated against smallpox, in programmes that inoculated tens of thousands.  Yet Shared Information Bias has helped to ensure that nearly everyone has heard of the blankets, while almost no one has heard of the vaccines.

Loss Aversion

Hossenfelder describes this final bias as “throwing good money after bad”.  This stems from the human fear of admitting that a course of action into which we have put time and money has in fact not panned out, meaning we continue with our original course of action long after it would be best to cut our losses and switch tack.  Hossenfelder says that this is why so many researchers continue lines of study long after they should have quit, wasting enormous amounts of grant money (and their own valuable time) in the process.  (This is also why the British government was reluctant to relax lockdown regulations even once studies began to show that stricter measures were not as effective as previously believed.)

Loss Aversion and other biases broached above highlight a major problem with the way that scientific funding is distributed in Europe.  In Europe, funding for the humanities and the social sciences was moved to a hard sciences model in the 1990s, meaning that historians compete for grants at the national and international level.  Committees are impersonal groups of scholars from across the EU or the country in question, which in theory means that these committees should be as impartial as possible.  Unfortunately, these committees are not immune to the sins of groupthink, Attentional Bias, or Shared Information Bias, because whatever biases are common amongst the community as a whole will almost invariably be shared by a number of committee members.  This means in practice that it is virtually impossible to get funding for a project that is not a “hot topic” and, furthermore, that projects on “hot topics” have to conform to the expectations of committee members.  If even a single committee member objects to the possible outcome of the experiment (e.g. if someone wishes to research the possible benefits of colonial rule in this or that country), it is virtually guaranteed that this proposal will be rejected by the committee.

The Loss Aversion Bias also comes into the funding picture because in order to be considered for funding, the system is set up so that principal investigators have to prove that they have already done successful research on a related topic.  This means that the PI is strongly encouraged to continue the same course of research even after the obvious benefits of that line have already been elucidated.  It further encourages them to exaggerate the importance of their own research, and to downplay possible criticisms of it.  In this way a handful of topics get the lion’s share of funding, and new, potentially revolutionary lines of research are left to wither on the vine.

In conclusion, common and easily-avoidable cognitive biases are rife in the history profession.  They have played a large part in the capture of our discipline by a handful of disingenuous identitarians.  This is why specious claims such as those put forward in the 1619 Project and the Canadian Historical Association’s infamous Genocide Declaration have become unquestionable orthodoxy.  A big part of our problem as a discipline is our indeterminate status between the humanities and the social sciences.  Ideally, of course, every academic department, including disciplines such as cultural studies and English literature, would include basic scientific bias training in their degrees, and take these seriously both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Until such a time as the humanities begin to take their scientific mandate of impartiality more seriously, embarrassingly avoidable biases such as Shared Information Bias, Social Reinforcement Bias, and Attentional Bias will continue to stunt the potential scientific value of the work that we do.  The danger, of course, is that potentially life-saving policy measures that derive from good history (e.g. history that demonstrates how systemic racism is not the only cause of Native American poverty today) will continue to be ignored, while manifestly ineffective or damaging policies will continue to be lauded by a historical profession dominated by groupthinking cheerleaders.

What is more, this danger becomes amplified as elites trained in history departments and other academic “disciplines” go into the upper echelons of government.  If they are taught the practices of groupthink, ostracisation, and opponent-shaming in their degree programmes, how can we expect them to behave any differently the next time a pandemic or other genuine disaster should arise?

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNeD2a95ROE

About the author

Jeff Fynn-Paul

Jeff Fynn-Paul

Jeff Fynn-Paul is Senior Lecturer in Economic History and International Studies at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He has published widely on Iberian, Mediterranean, and Global History, is a founding editor of the Journal of Global Slavery, and a co-editor of the Studies in Global Slavery book series for Brill. Fynn-Paul won the European History Quarterly Prize in 2016. In 2020, his Spectator article “Myth of the Stolen Country” went viral, enraging large swathes of academic twitter. His book on the history of European-New World encounters will be published by Post Hill Press in 2022.