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Creating Conspiracies By Reading History Backwards

Sorry for the absence, I have taken a bit of vacation and simultaneously been consumed in a deluge of interest for our company's new offerings.

I saw this story a while back, titled ""  I am only going by the author's summary because I can't understand the Japanese original, but this fits in with a whole class of revisionist history of which I have written before.  A historian digs through piles and piles of intelligence reports and decrypts and finds 2 or 3 that seem to point in advance to some catastrophic event in advance of that event.  A classic example was the revisionist claim that FDR knew in advance of Pearl Harbor but willfully ignored the warnings because he wanted a reason to pull isolationist US into the war with Germany.  More recently, whole conspiracy theories rest on similar hints that the GWB White House knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.

The problem with all these theories is that they are reading history backwards.  Intelligence agencies weed through thousands of rumors, decrypts, and hints every day.  The historian can wade through this mass and latch onto the couple of correct and prescient such rumors because she knows how history turns out.  She knows Japan bombed Pearl Harbor so she knows how to jump right to the needle in the haystack.  But officials at the time had no such foreknowledge.  Sure there may have been hints of attacks on 9/11 but there were also likely hints that turned out to be incorrect on scores of other potential plots and attacks, plots that would have (at the time) looked no more or less realistic than a hinted attack on 9/11.

There is a related problem that is a pet peeve of mine related to probability.  Let's say I offered you a 50/50 bet that you would win if a 6-sided die came up 1-5 but lose if the die came up 6.  Clearly, all day long the right decision is to take the bet.  But then imagine you took the bet and the day came up 6.  Was this, in retrospect, a bad decision?  I would argue absolutely not, you made a great decision that simply did not work out this one time, but over time making similar decisions will be a winner.  On the flip side, imagine someone who took the opposite side of the bet, a 50/50 bet that only pays off with a 6.  If a 6 comes up, did they make a good decision?  Absolutely not.  It was a terrible decision that they got bailed out on by luck, but over time they are going to bankrupt themselves.

These may seem like contrived examples, but I see exactly this sort of bad analysis all the time of risky decisions taken in an array of fields from sports to business.  I am sorry, but a football coach that goes for it on 4th and 8 from his own 30 and makes a first down did NOT make a good decision, despite the fact it worked out okay this one time.  But almost everyone in the media brings a retrospective bias to analysis of such decisions, rating them a good decision if they worked out all right and a bad decision if it did not work out all right, irrespective of whether the decision, when made, made a lick of sense.