Memory  /  Book Review

Story-Shaped Things

Historians tell stories about the past. A new book argues that those stories are often dangerously wrong.

In the summer of 1941, as a young chemistry student in New York, Isaac Asimov sold his editor a science fiction story, set far in the future, about the dark ages that would come after an interstellar empire’s collapse. Over several centuries, a pair of secret scientific foundations would manipulate human events to hasten the rise of a new empire.

Working together, Asimov and his editor devised a fictional scientific discipline, supposedly complete with theories and laws, to explain how the scheme would play out in the story. In large enough numbers, they posited, humans might act like gas molecules. Individuals were unpredictable, but scientific laws could describe a vast civilization’s behavior. Thus, with the right mathematical models, scientists could predict the future—and therefore change it. They named this imaginary science “psychohistory.” The Foundation stories, built on this framework, helped cement Asimov’s reputation as a major science fiction writer.

I kept thinking about Asimov’s stories as I read Alex Rosenberg’s 2018 book How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories. As you might guess, it is likely to irritate many historians. That’s not simply because the book is wrong, which it is, though in a sophisticated way. It’s because Rosenberg’s critique is haunted by an ideal that looks a lot like psychohistory, an ideal that can haunt students of history as well. Rosenberg suggests that historians must be able to make predictions about the future, in the manner of natural scientists, in order to claim that their work provides reliable knowledge about the past or has any significance for the present. Beneath this claim, however, lies the question of what meaning—if any—we can draw from human experiences.

Rosenberg, a distinguished philosopher of science at Duke University, argues that most people read stories about the past not only because they’re entertaining, but also because they hope such stories will provide guidance for life today. But relying on history like this is a dangerous mistake, Rosenberg believes, because “historical narratives are wrong—all of them.” (p. 29) Unlike scientists, historians are bad at making predictions about the future, and can’t even agree on the causes of events in the past, because they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of human behavior itself. It’s controlled by biological factors, he argues, not the conscious choices that historians write about. When it comes down to it, human behavior is “just a lot of unexciting firing of a lot of neural circuits”(p. 160). In light of this fact, he argues, the narratives historians produce are inaccurate, unhelpful, and even dangerous, given their power to inspire violence and oppression through irrational grudges and superstition.