The pitfalls of available sources
In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.
In his essay Availability¹, Yudkowsky defines the availability heuristic as the “judging [of] the frequency or probability of an event by the ease with which examples of the event come to mind.”
This means that we are both likelier to think deaths by accident occur more frequently in relation to deaths by diseases than they actually do, and compare out own lot to the rich and famous because they are the ones everyone is talking about.
“The objective frequency of Bill Gates is 0.00000000015, but you hear about him much more often. Conversely, 19% of the planet lives on less than $1/day, and I doubt that one fifth of the blog posts you read are written by them.”
This heuristic bias does not only make us more likely to be anxious and jealous in the present, but it also affects the work of everyone who studies people, past or present. The modern man receives information through several selective filters (how likely were people to share the news, does an algorithm consider the news potentially interesting to him, etc.), and most people are not very mindful of this fact. Those that are, however, can try to work their way around forming too heavily biased heuristics by diving into the cornucopia of information available to us at all times, and formulating a more balanced view of any given issue.
Once again, this is a luxury that historians have at best in a very limited capacity. Some periods in history are a regular desert of information, and whatever new research is published tends to be about looking at the few sources available from a novel angle. Not a problem in itself, but it becomes precarious when one tries to draw too far-reaching conclusions from them in their thirst for answers about the society from whence the sources originated. For a hypothetical example, imagine trying to answer questions about how a regular farmstead wife experienced their daily lives based on a single source written by a monk in a monastery a few villages past. Mind you, I do not think that we should not touch things that we cannot make very informed analyses about, but it is good to keep that mindfulness about oneself of not being very well informed.
This is an issue that anyone who studies illiterates has to face, and it is likely the biggest contributor to why historians did not concern themselves too much with peasants before the 20th century. The written word is a potent filter in and of itself, and the more time passes, added filters of what is considered in any given time to preserve to the future gets added. No large wonder that most historical sources concern the highborn and educated, as well as do histories. Why study the silent poor, when you could say so much more with confidence about Bill Gates?
When it is not a question of having only a handful of sources available, the issue begins to resemble the predicament of our modern lives much more. Namely that we are more likely to recall dramatic or interesting events and thus presume that they were more frequent than they were. It also relates to the temptation that I have mentioned before, of finding garden gnomes where there are none. In my opinion, this is a much bigger issue than making broad generalizations based on the writings of just a couple of monks. At least when the problem is the dearth of sources, the scientific community tends to be pretty good at taking it into account when assessing new research.
When one studies a time period where sources are too many for any single person to comb through and take into account, the intrinsic tendency of humans to give more weight to the shocking and dramatic poses a bigger threat to how any given period of time is perceived of as. Consider any common sense ideas about how violent and intolerant people used to be in any given time period, and it becomes easy to see why those ideas may have become stuck in the cultural consciousness.
Most likely the reality is more boring than our ideas of it, and as professionals it would be prudent of historians to not become one of the filters between reality and the broader audience, ending up propagating ideas of our ancestors as more ludicrous and wild than they were just because we like to remember the juicy bits.
¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 23–25.