I read the book Why We Don't Learn From History by BH Liddell Hart and Giles Lauren. It's a great read on why societies keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
Here are seven things I learned.
1. History is all up for interpretation:
The exploration of history is a sobering experience. It reduced the famous American historian, Henry Adams, to the state of cynicism shown in his reply to a questioning letter: "I have written too much history to believe in it. So if anyone wants to differ from me, I am prepared to agree with him." The study of war history is especially apt to dispel any illusions about the reliability of men's testimony and their accuracy in general, even apart from the shaping of facts to suit the purposes of propaganda.
2. It gives clues, but never a map:
History has limitations as a guiding signpost, however, for although it can show us the right direction, it does not give detailed information about the road conditions. But its negative value as a warning sign is more definite. History can show us what to avoid, even if it does not teach us what to do, by showing the most common mistakes that mankind is apt to make and to repeat.
3. History is massaged:
Far more effort is required to epitomise facts with clarity than to express them cloudily. Misstatements can be more easily spotted in sentences that are crystal clear than those that are cloudy. The writer has to be more careful if he is not to be caught out. Thus care in writing makes for care in treating the material of history, to evaluate it correctly.
4. Cherry-picking is a reality:
Facts must be treated with scientific care for accuracy. But they cannot be interpreted without the aid of imagination and intuition. The sheer quantity of evidence is so overwhelming that selection is inevitable. Where there is selection there is art.
5. Humans are fallible:
Yet the longer I watch current events, the more I have come to see how many of our troubles arise from the habit, on all sides, of suppressing or distorting what we know quite well is the truth, out of devotion to a cause, an ambition, or an institution; at bottom, this devotion being inspired by our own interest.
6. Those who collect history aren't always historians:
In no field has the pursuit of truth been more difficult than that of military history. Apart from the way that the facts were hidden, the need for technical knowledge tended to limit the undertaking to trained soldiers, and these were not trained in historical methods.
7. Recognize your errors:
All of us do foolish things, but the wiser realize what they do. The most dangerous error is failure to recognize our own tendency to error. That failure is a common affliction of authority.
Go buy the book here. It's great.
Contact Morgan Housel at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.