Many of us think, consciously or subconsciously, of the current ascendancy of the West as an undisputed fact and one that was inevitable. Philip Tetlock and his fellow editors have assembled a number of essays of counterfactual history that examine whether the rise of the West and its form were inevitable. The value of such counterfactual exercises is that they can help us re-examine our thinking and our assumptions and learn how these influence our forward thinking and ability to see alternative possibilities. When we are thinking about the future we need to understand the past and this does not mean just learning history, it means thinking about the tide of history and significant turning points. We also need to understand the assumptions that underpin our view of turning points and their history*.
Examples from the book include discussing whether the defeat of the Persians by the Greeks at Salamis in 480 BC could have been reversed, either by the death of Themistocles or different tactics by either side. The battle at Salamis is seen as a crucial point in history and is far more important than the death of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae which is more familiar to people and has been recently celebrated on film. If the Persians had won and Greek society was destroyed there are serious doubts about what would have happened to the fledgling concepts of democracy and rational thought that have underpinned the rise of the West.
Other fascinating questions are explored such as what if Jesus of Nazareth had not been crucified and lived to a ripe old age, what if England had been Catholic instead of Protestant, and what if China had risen further before current times instead of stagnating as it did. Some historians see these exercises as futile daydreaming that cannot be proven or refuted because there is no evidence that can be examined. The wrong kinds of counterfactual exercises certainly fall into that trap. Alternative histories that require a multitude of interlinking changes or a single change which is so unlikely as to be laughable are exercises in fantasy and should be ignored. However carefully constructed counterfactual exercises can make us re-examine our thinking and our assumptions and inform our forward thinking. We heartily recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in history or thinking about the future.
* We use a technique called Future Backwards that can be used to do this within your own organisation to understand how you think about the past and the future. Go to our Services section on our website for more detail.