202 – Study events – not linear time!

Posted on January 2, 2013 by

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Prof. Maureen O’HARA, Department of Economics, at Cornell University, recently blew my mind away (not that there was much of it, so it created no more than a small dust-devil). As she was about graciously to receive her honorary doctorate from Berne University she explained to an evenfall gathering some of her work on stock market transactions.

Taken as a time line, stock market sales are akin to Brownian motion. One stock goes slightly up, another goes down, and so for thousands of stocks. Pundits tell plausible commentaries about what’s going on – these stories are usually devoid of any truth content[1]. Sure, we love them on account of our deep-seated need for “retrospective coherence”[2] – boiling down a complex process to a single, plausible causality and story-line of clear necessity rather than mysterious contingence. Thus are heuristics[3] born, established, and hardened into myth.

In the world of events the story is in the contingent detail, not in the time line[4]. If one switches one’s attention from the time line to the circumstances of the sale and studies these events, looking not for sequence, but for size and dynamics and their details and differences, a whole world of infinite intricacy opens up. High frequency traders study these events and make a killing by using the information they have gathered in order to manipulate sales to their advantage. By being there at the instant of the sale they are able to cream off a portion of the profit from the transaction[5].

I’ve been mulling this lesson while recently reading American history. And I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a deep truth in Prof. O’HARA’s insight. We have all studied the American Revolution – a narrative that favors e.g. “ideology”[6] and a few “great men” asserting “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” But is it true, or just a convenient heuristic?

Rather than focusing on the “time line” historians of the American Revolution are focusing increasingly on the contingencies and circumstances of the event. And when they do wondrous things come to the surface. Exploring the months and years leading up to the Declaration of Independence Timothy H. BREEN[7] sees a groundswell that moved people from spontaneous rage to resistance, insurgency and eventually a viable movement for colonial liberation. Far from being a whiggish tale of vision and ambition by a “Band of Brothers”[8] who sapiently led the American people to independence, it was the people who took the initiative – it was a complex and emergent affair in which passions, rather than ideas, dominated[9].

How passions arose, how they spread, how they were contained by emergent institutions and channeled to the “fabrication of a new political consciousness” (pg. 17) are more important for a student of politics today than the particulars of ideologies shared among the elite who was to benefit from the Revolution.

The spontaneous emergence of institutions would seem to me to warrant study in light of current events – like the Arab Spring. These local entities – committees of safety or observation – created “a sense of mutual trust upon which organized resistance ultimately depends” (pg. 18). How did they come about? What ideas and worldviews allowed them to emerge? Their role in formulating as well as controlling the “revolutionary spirit” subsequently allowed elites to harness it to an overarching ideology. In the case of the American Revolution it was a constructive one. But is this always so?

Building on BREEN’s insight: revolutions just don’t emerge – like Athena’s birth – from the mind of “superior people” or follow a preordained and predictable path. As a corollary, no revolution is like another and detailed comparative study of such events will bring much understanding of the causes but also of the path-dependent outcomes that lead to success or failure. Far from being subordinate to the main narrative, the detail is the essence of the event.

In the spirit of my http://bit.ly/YOub9R let me “dream” about historians resorting to computer models to simulate the American revolutionary process in ways that may parallel (ever so imperfectly) our increasing understanding of complex ecosystems and how they move from current equilibrium to another[10]. Such studies may allow us better to judge current revolutionary phenomena.

In a later blog I’ll revert to the subject of the circumstance of historical and political change: the break-up of the Allied coalition after the defeat of Germany and Japan – and the subsequent emergence of the Cold War – encompass cautionary tales about “retrospective coherence”, mono-causalities, necessities and “theories” that base themselves on such simplifications. Diplomats better focus on the lessons from the detail – after all, international relations is all about enfolding detail…


[1]          Se: Nassim Nicholas TALEB (2007) (2nd ed.): Fooled by randomness. The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets. Penguin, London.

[2]          See: Daniel KAHNEMAN (2011): Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York.

[3]          Definition: “a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions.” (KAHNEMAN, op. cit. pg. 98). One such procedure is to substitute a difficult question for an easy one – some call it “theory”. See also: Gerd GIGERENZER – Peter M. TODD et als. (1999): Simple heuristics that make us smart. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[4]          Prof. O’HARA also made the point that “linear time” is a remnant from the world of agricultural societies. In an industrial society machines are based on throughput – “volume time” is the measure of passing time.

[5]          Such predatory behavior can get out of hand. On 6th May 2010 HFT disrupted the market and, for a short while, wiped 1 trillion $ off the value of stocks. This “flash crash” left pundits and regulators baffled, and hapless.

[6]          Bernard BAYLIN (1992) (2nd. Ed.): The ideological origins of the American Rvolution. Belknap, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[7]            Timothy H. BREEN (2010) : American insurgents, American patriots. The revolution of the people. Hill and Wang, New York.

[8]          See e.g.: Joseph J. ELLIS (2000): Founding brothes. The revolutionary generation. Alfred Knopf, New York.

[9]          We have a similar process in science. While the path of scientific discovery mostly follows a tortuous track of often blind passion, proof is presented as the linear result of rationality.

[10]         http://bit.ly/ZThReJ