Remembering the Archduke

Today is an important day!  It is June 28th, the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princep. Which would be just an interesting bit of historical trivia except for the associated unpleasantness that led to World War I.   I’m celebrating in the traditional way, by exchanging angry emails with friends about war responsibility.  For the record, I place almost the full blame on Russia.

The occasion is a good reminder for humility in the social sciences, and in prediction more generally.  In the aftermath of World War I, it became easy to see in retrospect how the increasing web of treaties alongside growing areas of conflict would lead inevitably to a conflagration.  But even today, there is no political science formula for “increasing web of treaties => conflict”, and international relations scholars would have been totally helpless to predict with confidence whether there would be a massive conflict in Europe.  Not to mention even roughly when it would come, nor that this particular crisis would be the one to set it off.

Contingent events ruled the day in Europe, both on June 28th and long afterwards.  The assassination attempt had just failed when Princep shot the Archduke – he had been dejected and dropped into a deli to eat his sadness, and upon emerging found the Archduke’s carriage in front him, the driver having taken a wrong turn.  That’s a pretty unbelievable stack of contingent events – and the ones to follow would be even more unbelievable.  For one small example, if a certain Bavarian message runner had only inhaled a little more mustard gas in October 1918, then there may have never been a World War II, Holocaust, or the subsequent Cold War.

There have been triumphs of the social sciences, but today reflects how blind they are.  So often the truly massive events of history have been caused by just plain dumb luck.  Something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you that “Big Data will change everything.”

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