It is a truism that every person in every organization ever created uses history to make decisions on a daily basis. This is essentially accomplished through the use of analogy, suggesting that some issue under current scrutiny is like, may be compared to, or otherwise is related to some historical example. Understanding what happened in those past, analogous instances, therefore, serves a valuable purpose in considering what to do in the present.
The difficulties of analogs, however, are that they are routinely poorly applied to considerations of policies, priorities, and decision-making which might effectively be informed by careful analog studies. Unfortunately, most uses of historical understanding are implicit, relying on personal anecdotes and employing faulty logic in the comparison. We have certainly seen this in the context of issues concerning the exploration of the space frontier since virtually the beginning of the space age.
These range from analogs comparing modern cruise ship vacations and future space tourism to using the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union of the 1960s as an analog to predict a similar space race between the United States and China.
Central to the usefulness of any case study is the role of analogs in understanding current and future events. There is a long history of the use and abuse of analogs, offering perspectives on how they might be effectively employed in analysis of current challenges. These essays will employ analog analysis to reach broad conclusions that may inform future efforts. We structured this set of case studies along similar lines to those developed in Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May’s classic text, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. The methods employed were the fruit of several years’ worth of classes taught by the authors in the Harvard Business School. They offered a structure that called for analysis of each analog along three dimensions: what are the similarities with the present situation; what are the differences; and what are the implications of these similarities and differences? This framework can be productive.
Political scientist Francis Gavin has refined this approach, laying out five key concepts that promise more effective historical analysis and their application to current situations. These include understanding and investigating the applicability of vertical history, horizontal history, chronological proportionality, unintended consequences, and policy insignificance. These concepts, explained below, coupled with formal analog studies and historical perspectives from Neustadt and May, offer a methodological perspective useful on a daily basis.
- Vertical history focuses on understanding why events occurred in the past. This is a very standard task of historical investigation and the best work published in the field all effectively present the why’s of history and not just the how’s.
- Horizontal history explores the linkage of events across space, either geographical or cultural, or economic or political.
- Chronological proportionality emphasizes the long-term consequences of events; as an example understanding and applying which scraps of history concerning the Spanish experience in America that will be helpful in analog to the issue of space colonization. Instances universally hailed as significant may prove over time to be less important than initially thought.
- Unintended consequences present the challenge of applying an analog seen as useful, but in reality turns out to be a negative in the long run, or vice-versa.
- Policy insignificance is the challenge of applying analogies without full appreciation that the analogs may be less useful than envisioned in the policy making process.
I am becoming quite short with the use of certain analogies to explain current events. One bandied about all the time is Obama/Trump/Clinton/name the person of your choice is like Hitler. This is not an appropriate analog. There are many others being used regularly as well.