Monday, July 19, 2010

A Note About Historical Causality

During this blazing hot summer, in the midst of an oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf, I have not noticed that public opinion is moving toward belief in global warming, or toward investment in alternative energy, or toward environmentalism more generally. Rather the opposite, I would say.

So the next time you read that some event caused some intellectual trend -- e.g., the Lisbon earthquake caused the Enlightenment to turn more negative, or the Tet Offensive caused the American people to give up on the Vietnam War-- don't believe it. The broader cultural impact of events, if any, depends on the circumstances.


Unknown said...

Obviously context matters, but I'm not sure how that deprives the events you mention of the causality historians ascribe to them. Clearly the Tet Offensive was a blow to Americans' confidence in their leaders. Americans may have been ready to lose confidence in their leaders--witness the fact that the public tended to ignore the fact that, militarily, the offensive was a resounding defeat for the Communists. But the sight of Americans fighting to get back into their own embassy was a powerful one. With no Tet, Americans' sourness on the war might have dissipated--as our sourness on the Iraq war seems to have, as Northerners' sourness on the Civil War in 1864 dissipated with the capture of Atlanta and other victories. Real events really matter, even if people's reactions to them don't always follow the logic that you think they should.

John said...

I have read that a graph of American confidence in our military leaders through the 1960s shows barely a blip from the Tet Offensive. Remember that Nixon won the election. The Tet Offensive may have tipped a few waverers but the change of American opinion was a long, slow process and many people still think we should have stuck it out.

Unknown said...

Well, there are lies, bad lies, and statistics--and then, even worse, statistics that argue against a point I happen to be making.

No one's going to disagree if you say something was a long, slow process, and even more, one with many factors. Just because something was a long, slow process with many factors does not mean that reaction to a particular event is not one of those factors. Because things happen with long processes, an event that seems to go against the trend can play a real role in reversing or slowing or deflecting a trend, and an event that goes with the trend is an important reinforcer.

John said...

I am sure you agree, though, that historical causality is a very complex thing rarely captured by "a caused b" sorts of statements.