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.