Moshik Temkin’s Assertions about the Limits of Analogical-Historical Reasoning

29 06 2017

Moshik Temkin is an associate professor of history and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He recently published a piece in the New York Times on the limits of analogical historical reasoning.  He observes that the chaotic Trump presidency has increased the demand for the services of historians.

Donald Trump might be disastrous for most Americans and a danger to the world, but he has been a boon to historians. The more grotesque his presidency appears, the more historians are called on to make sense of it, often in 30-second blasts on cable news or in quick-take quotes in a news article.

Temkin notes that one of the most popular analogies used to understand Trump is the Nixon presidency. Temkin cautions against the use of this historical analogy and all of the other historical analogies currently being used to make sense of Trump. He writes that

We teach our students to be wary of analogies, which are popular with politicians and policy makers (who choose them to serve their agendas) but often distort both the past and the present.


I’m not certain who the “we” here is, but I think that Temkin is talking about the historical profession more generally.

Temkin correctly identifies some of the flaws in the particular historical analogies that have been used to understand the Trump presidency (Nixon, Huey Long, and Hitler). However, I think that he errs in questioning the general utility of the mode of reasoning known as historical analogy. That’s because nobody has ever tested in laboratory conditions whether analogical-historical reasoning produces superior or inferior decision. It is simply premature for Temkin or anyone else to declare that analogical-historical reasoning is a good or a bad way of thinking about complex systems.


Let me explain a bit more why I say that. Temkin is on solid ground when he stresses the potential dangers involved in using the heuristic of historical analogy.  Those dangers are real, as are the dangers of misusing mathematical reasoning or micro-economic reasoning or geographical metaphors or any other type of thinking. Temkin is clearly less supportive of this mode of reasoning than Barry Eichengreen, who has stressed the benefits of the use of analogical-historical thinking (see my previous blog post on the subject).  I certainly understand why Professor Temkin is inclined to be sceptical of analogical-historical reasoning. As Professor Temkin doubtless knows there is a large body of literature in political science on the use and misuse of historical analogy in decision-making and persuasion.  Within philosophy, there are debates about whether or why analogical reasoning is justified. I would encourage any social scientist interested in whether historical analogy is useful to look at the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Analogy and Analogical Reasoning, particularly the material on analogy and Bayesian epistemology. Even though the work of philosophers in this area isn’t data driven at all, their speculations can help us to generate testable hypotheses.  I suspect that Temkin is coming at the issue of whether analogical-historical reasoning is legitimate from this general direction.

Temkin concludes his piece in the New York Times by declaring that analogical-historical thinking is inferior to other ways of using history to understand the present.  He asks “If analogies and comparisons with former American presidents and politicians are deeply flawed” ways of understanding the present,  how should history be used? He argues that decision-making should be informed not by historical analogy but by a knowledge of “social and political change over time — really the meat and potatoes of the historian’s craft”. He suggests that the best way to understand Trump is to study the history of such phenomena as the “worship of celebrity; the persistence of gender, racial and economic inequality; the devastation of foreign wars; voter suppression; and a political system that does not reflect the diversity or policy preferences of the American people.

Let me be clear, I am open to the possibility that Temkin is right and that the types of historical thinking he favours produce better decisions than the types of historical reasoning he dislikes. In fact, my first reaction is to want to believe that he is correct about this point. He could be right about his hypothesis that analogical-historical reasoning produces bad decisions. However,  until we try to test this hypothesis, he claim will sit on a flimsy foundation.

The main problem with Temkin’s excessively skeptical view of analogical-historical reasoning is that nobody has ever tested the claim that reasoning by historical analogy is “good or bad”. Moreover, his extreme scepticism about analogical-historical reasoning appears to be inconsistent with the research findings in cognitive science and strategic management on the benefits and drawbacks of different types of analogical reasoning. I would encourage to Temkin to look at the research of his colleagues across the river at the Harvard Business School who have a more nuanced understanding of the conditions under which analogical reasoning can be useful to decision-makers.  The 2005 paper by Giovanni Gavetti and Jan W. Rivkin in the Harvard Business Review can be a highly accessible gateway to this literature.

People with PhDs in history like to claim that thinking historically produces better decisions. Until very recently, I repeated these claims uncritically. The problem with this assertion is that it has not yet been proved with anything beyond anecdotal data and testimonies for successful decision-makers who assert that historical knowledge helped them to think better. Until someone does some serious research to test the claims made about the utility of different types of historical knowledge and different types of historical thinking,  the claim that historical knowledge improves understanding of the world will, unfortunately, not be taken seriously. We know from an experiment done at Stanford in the early 1980s (see the 1981 paper by Thomas Gilovich) that priming experimental subjects by exposing them to historical analogies changes their decisions, but this research did not try to measure whether analogical-historical reasoning produced better decisions.


Clearly more research in this area is required.  I can see a whole research programme designed to answer the question of which forms of historical knowledge and historical reasoning produce better decisions. Such research, which would involve interdisciplinary teams, would clearly require the mobilization of serious resources. Perhaps a part of this research project could examine how historical knowledge interacts with biochemistry in shaping decision-making [Giving men a does of testosterone has a negative impact on their ability to correctly answer certain types of questions, as was demonstrated by Amos Nadler of the Richard Ivey School of Business and his co-authors] .

However, until we historians admit that do not yet know whether historical knowledge produces better decisions, we are unlikely to begin doing research experimental in this area. The first step towards gaining knowledge is to admit ignorance.











One response

12 07 2017

Reblogged this on Organizational History Network and commented:
Reblogged from The Past Speaks:

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