Historical explanations, in other words, are neither causal explanations nor even really descriptions—at least not in the sense that we imagine them to be. Rather, they are stories. As the historian John Lewis Gaddis points out, they are stories that are constrained by certain historical facts and other observable evidence. Nevertheless, like a good story, historical explanations concentrate on what’s interesting, downplaying multiple causes and omitting all the things that might have happened but didn’t. As with a good story, they enhance drama by focusing the action around a few events and actors, thereby imbuing them with special significance or meaning. And like good stories, good historical explanations are also coherent, which means they tend to emphasize simple, linear determinism over complexity, randomness, and ambiguity. Most of all, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end, at which point everything—including the characters identified, the order in which the events are presented, and the manner in which both characters and events are described—all has to make sense.
So powerful is the appeal of a good story that even when we are trying to evaluate an explanation scientifically—that is, on the basis of how well it accounts for the data—we can’t help judging it in terms of its narrative attributes. In a range of experiments, for example, psychologists have found that simpler explanations are judged more likely to be true than complex explanations, not because simpler explanations actually explain more, but rather just because they are simpler. In one study, for example, when faced with a choice of explanations for a fictitious set of medical symptoms, a majority of respondents chose an explanation involving only one disease over an alternative explanation involving two diseases, even when the combination of the two diseases was statistically twice as likely as the signle-disease explanation. Somewhat paradoxically, explanations are also judged to be more likely to be true when they have informative details added, even when the extra details are irrelevant or actually make the explanation less likely.
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