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  • Writer's pictureTom Paine

20/20 Blindsight



Are they cheering or jeering? Where's this guy's hindsight? (created using Shutterstock's AI)

We live in an age of arrogance, and cognitive bias Covid.  Take, for example, 20/20 hindsight. A lot has been written about the hindsight bias. Here’s my take. Merriam Webster defines 20/20 hindsight as “the full knowledge and complete understanding that one has about an event only after it has happened.” Sure, just a little Monday-morning quarterbacking and second-guessing. What could possibly go wrong? What Merriam-Webster meant to say is “the full knowledge and complete understanding that one believes they have” about the past event.

The Monday-morning quarterbacks are utterly confident that they can explain the essential causal sequence that unfolded in the game, whether football or politics or worse. They are second-guessing, and likely guessing wrong.

The pundits and pols are utterly confident that they know enough to fault people, other than themselves, for having acted without knowing what allegedly smart, well-informed people now know about their predecessor’s actions. The pundits might expound that what happened was so inevitable, or so avoidable. They may even go so far as to blame past wrongdoers for failing to know what we know, or believe what we believe, and judge them by our standard—in other words, for failing to adhere to a norm that only became a norm subsequently. They believe that they can confidently judge long-dead perpetrators who conveniently are no longer around to defend themselves. Their hubris allows them to expound what they believe without the disclaimer that of course the future will deliver more nuanced, fairer, and truer insights that may prove them to have been shortsighted, perhaps as much in their own ways as their predecessors were in theirs.  Our current understanding is nothing more than that—current, not future. And it is swayed by too many “known knowns”— the “availability heuristic.” The more garbage is out there, the more it confirms itself. 

            As if all this were not enough, we have the slippery slope of language itself—how it morphs from one meaning to another. I was struck by this at the Massachusetts Historical Society while talking to a Native American who quoted a 17thc. document’s allusion to “reducing” her forebears. For her, the meaning was obvious: reducing the numbers of her people was nothing short of genocide.  I nodded, but later confirmed that 17th c. texts often use the word “reduce” to mean something closer to its literal original meaning, “lead back.” That is, the Anglos who had come into the indigenous people’s world uninvited hoped to convert them to Christianity and improve their lives by leading them back from ignorance—as if the white man’s ways were less ignorant than theirs. Not great in hindsight, but not genocide. Again, we must do our best to understand the norms of previous times, and that includes the norms of language in their day. 

            Most irksome to me is mixing the fad of textualism aka originalism in reading our Constitution with a non-original interpretation of the language in that document. No example is more flagrant than the interpretation of the Second Amendment’s phrase “well-regulated militia” to allow unregulated ownership of weapons with lethal firepower the framers of the Constitution could not possibly anticipate.  If the framers were wary of poorly regulated militias in their day, what would they make of our weaponized world now?  This judicial hindsight is the wishful thinking of the gun lobby.

But really, how does the 20/20 hindsight bias not intrude on legal outcomes?  For example, lawsuits against boards for not knowing what later became known and therefore failing to do the right thing, as defined in hindsight?  We know the outcome, bad or good; they could not. We should not make the bias mistake of blaming some people for their role in a bad outcome and crediting others for their role in a good outcome. Nor should we overzealously apply our notions of good and bad to former times when evil and injustice were far more prevalent than in our own worrisome era. The judgmental question ought to be simply this: was the person then acting decently according to the norms of their times? And how well do we understand those norms?

So when opium made its way into the China Trade, an era when everyone was doing it but some were beginning to question it, we might be overly judgmental in our hindsight. We might call them drug dealers, even drug cartels. So might the Chinese. But their moral superiority, at the societal level, vanishes once the Chinese are trading opium internally in the early 20th century, and trafficking in synthetic opioids supplying American addicts. Time to call it a draw?

Claiming the wisdom of hindsight while remaining ignorant of extenuating circumstances, some Western scholars might fault the Chinese, inventors of paper, printing, and the compass, for not having long ago put these inventions to good use in precisely documenting their vast territorial claims, instead of relying, even recently, on a vague dashed line surrounding unoccupied islets in the South China, islets far closer to other nations than to the claimant. Sorry, that fault-finding is 20/20 hindsight. What a misnomer!

Likewise, future generations will judge ours for failing to do enough to stop global warming. Will that be entirely fair?  So easy for them to formulate the logic, or biologic, that should have guided society, somehow collectively, where it most mattered, to do the right thing. Easier said than done, and then some.

So a word of caution to pontificators, me included.  Judge not that ye be not judged. If only the world were truly binary, black and white, male and female, young and old, even past and present. But boundaries are usually blurry. When that reality is a good thing, enjoy the frisson. When it is dangerous, tread lightly. And what is the boundary between good and dangerous?  Between blindsight and insight?  Knowing how blurry the boundary can be is a start. And that applies to the length of time between reality-checks.

Accurate hindsight hinges on accurate memory for one’s personal history, and accurate information for preceding eras. But even our recollection of personal events may be inaccurate. Our brains fill in the blanks of our memory with what we think happened, because we are susceptible to what has been called false memory syndrome, or the confirmation bias, or good old-fashioned rationalization, or wishful thinking.

Wishful thinking snares us with the sunk-cost fallacy. We may hold onto a loser investment too long, even doubling down on the bet, and end up losing even more by doing so.

            Let’s hope that by 2025 a little humility, humanity, and self-awareness will help get us all closer to 20/15 vision.   

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