Keep It Simple, Stupid!

As I was planning a twenty-minute teaching demonstration for my university pedagogy course, I came across something I want to share lest I forget it again.

It happened as I was rummaging through some of the old slides I had stored from lectures from a time when I was only starting my path as a student of history. One of these sets of slides was put together by a very well-known historian in Finland, Markku Kuisma. The slides themselves are ugly as sin, as Kuisma has since retired from his position at the university and is a product of another age, making his career during a time when the visual aesthetics of lecture slides were not on anyone’s priority list. At any rate, I found that the content of the slides themselves still checks out, especially in regards of two matter-of-fact rules of conduct for historians shortened to convenient abbreviations.

These rules were KISS and SS.

KISS stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid!”

I find it a refreshingly blunt take on the importance for historians to use Occam’s Razor in our work. The simplest possible explanation is usually the likeliest one when trying to figure out motivations of historical actors, even if it is rarely the most interesting. Either finding ways to subscribe to already existing conspiracy theories or inventing your own is intellectually very rewarding for curious-minded people, but absence of evidence is actually evidence of absence.

 “If E is a binary event and P(H | E) > P(H), i.e., seeing E increases the probability of H, then P(H | ¬ E) < P(H), i.e., failure to observe E decreases the probability of H . The probability P(H) is a weighted mix of P(H | E) and P(H | ¬ E), and necessarily lies between the two.”¹

Conspiracy theories usually rely on multiple real-life things being entangled together in a convoluted way which, simply by the number of supposed pieces of ‘evidence’ start to make sense. However, very concrete pieces of evidence that would be difficult to explain in a simpler way are exceedingly rare, and in probability theory, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Secrets are difficult to keep, and the difficulty only increases the more people are involved and the more water passes under the bridge.

SS is an abbreviation from the Finnish words ‘Sähläys’ and ‘Sattuma’, which mean ‘Fussing about’ and ‘Coincidence’ respectively. The rule exists to remind historians from attributing too much agency to historical actors, as they were likely more reactionary than even they themselves thought themselves to be, and most results of complicated causalities can be attributed to something that can adequately be described as coincidence.

Considering this rule and speaking of Razors, Hanlon’s Razor is another very useful and yet woefully underutilized reasoning tools for historians:

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”²

Because of Hindsight Bias it is easy to see multiple possible paths a rational agent could have taken to reach the conclusions recorded in history, had they been of a mind to wreak some havoc. However, as I have stated before, both masterminds – evil or otherwise – are exceedingly rare even when speaking of one’s ability to conduct their own lives. Trying to extend one’s influence to the probabilities surrounding oneself in situation where multiple people and bureaucracies are involved makes it almost impossible for someone to reliably plan a course that would play out the way they envisaged. Even if one shouldn’t fall into the trap of considering people idiots either, stupidity is still a much more common trait than thought-out malice. Most of human life is about reacting to situations (e.g. fussing about) and this in turn just so happened to sometimes lead to coincidences that work out in one’s own favour. These people are then likely to construct narratives of their own lives where they really believe they were the orchestrator of their own success, which then leads to primary sources where an uncritical historian might take someone’s word for how the events and thought processes leading up to something occurred.  And this lies at the heart of why one shouldn’t forget the rule of SS.

It is striking to me that though, at least for my academic generation, these rules were introduced very early on our path for a history degree, I could not even remember having heard them before I went back to revisit old slides. I cannot imagine that many other students took them to heart either, which is a shame.

¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence” in Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 107.


Fiction and Nonfiction

History is not like most scientific disciplines in that it really does read like prose a lot of the time while seeming to only borrow some notes from the academic writing playbook. This is also – at least from my experience – the encouraged direction to take with one’s writing. I’ve mentioned before the old cliché discourse of whether history is more a genre of literature than a scientific discipline, and my position regarding it remains unchanged. I consider history a blend of both fiction and nonfiction, with the nonfiction parts enjoying varying and often low degrees of falsifiability. One can quite confidently state that it was a fact that the Chernobyl nuclear plant did in fact happen, and tangible evidence for it will remain there for curious minds to collect for years to come. However, when we step into the realm of private acts or go even further and consider the lived experiences of historical actors, I do not consider it such an insult for someone to suggest that we peddle in fiction. We understand little enough of our own experiences in the present moment, and there is no way one could ever without any reasonable doubt falsify an interpretation of what Alexander the Great actually felt towards Hephaestion. All we can do is own up to our own interpretations; make it clear when we are painting the garden as we see it from behind our window and when we are assuming gnomes in a blotch that has vague hues of blue and red to it.

On top of all that, owing to the vastness of history, a historian cannot escape selective narration in their writing and all that implies. If we follow Yudkowsky’s proposed definition that nonfiction conveys knowledge while fiction conveys experience, then history is always blending these two.¹ We want to transmit knowledge of the past to our audience, but this knowledge in itself often feels hollow unless you can at least imagine what it implied to the people to whom the knowledge had some tangible significance. Additionally, even the process of choosing what knowledge to include has the author making conscious narration choices, since there is never a clearly contained set of data that warrants full disclosure, while other data could be nonchalantly ignored. Everything is linked and nothing is obviously irrelevant.

This mixture of nonfiction and fiction is especially central to my own current research (and my overall research interests) as trying to understand past experiences is precisely at the center of my studies. I know I can get no falsifiable factual knowledge pertaining to my research question extracted from my sources, but by trying to understand my subjects on their own terms and by reflecting upon my own knowledge of psychology I try to translate what I think their experiences were into a narrative for modern readers. In other words, I am trying to convey experiences and thus dipping my toes into the realm of fiction, even if my interpretations are based on historical sources and real people instead of being completely made up. I also do not feel any lesser as a scholar because of this.

Considering this fine line between fiction and nonfiction in our writing, historians should be especially wary of further obscuring where the line is drawn. It should be apparent to the reader where the change from listing factual data to making non-falsifiable interpretations happens. The problem with this is that we often want to write enticing text that has a proper impact on our audience, much like novelists do. Unlike novelists, however, people often take our word as fact, because of our position of authority as experts. Especially lay readers do not stop for a minute to think of the words beyond the initial impression and do the legwork of separating the falsifiable from the non-falsifiable. We should be responsible and make the distinction obvious enough for any reader to understand.

“Muddled language is muddled thinking.”²

In academic circles we are surrounded by polite people with impostor syndromes, so it is rare occurrence one gets called out for mystifying language outside of workshops dedicated to improving one’s writing skills. More often academics will try to see if there might possibly be anything meaningful to a misleading phrase, giving you the benefit of a doubt and interpreting their lack of understanding as their own flaw rather than yours. You cannot be this lenient with your own writing. If you cannot be sure of what you mean or can imagine multiple interpretations for a sentence within your work, the sentence needs to go.

A good way to start to approach this is by writing your first, second, and thirds drafts (at least) with as simple language as possible. Clarity is king, and you should never lose sight of where the line between fiction and nonfiction runs in your own work.

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”³

Additionally, to make your stupid remarks even more obvious, use a silly font like Comic Sans if you can bear it while working on your text. Times New Roman is like wearing a suit while Comic Sans is a clown face – these first impressions of how your text looks will matter by the time you submit it to a journal but while working on your text you should let the content of the message rule sovereign.

¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality and the English Language” in Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015).

² Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Human Evil and Muddled Thinking” in Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015).

³ George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (April 1946).