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Filmed on Monday April 28, 02008

Niall Ferguson, Peter Schwartz

Historian vs. Futurist on Human Progress

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson is a Scottish historian now based at Harvard. His most recent book is The War of the World: History's Age of Hatred, 1914-1989.

Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is co-founder and chair of Global Business Network, author of The Art of the Long View and Inevitable Surprises.

Distinguished historian Ferguson and renowned futurist Schwartz disagree profoundly on the nature of human progress. Both use scenarios (called "counterfactual history" by Ferguson) to analyze how events play out. Ferguson wrote The War of the World (2006), a history of the violence that defined the 20th Century. Schwartz wrote The Art of the Long View (1991), the standard text on scenario planning, and The Long Boom (1999), on global prosperity in the 21st century. Both speakers regard history as highly contingent. The question is, contingent on what?

Past vs. Future

In what turned out to be a riveting evening, historian Niall Ferguson and futurist Peter Schwartz fire-hosed each other with enough ideas, frames of reference, ripostes, and eloquences to lead to a clear conceptual divergence. At the same time, the two were discovering, live in front of an audience, new ways they might work together on future projects.

Ferguson began by pointing out that while we face many futures, there is only one past, and its residents outnumber us--- only 6 percent of all humans are now alive. Historians, he said, "commune with the dead. We re-enact their thoughts, in their context and ours."

Historians look for rough regularities, such as he found in his analysis of the wars and hatred played out in the 20th Century. In his book, The War of the World, he describes how the combination of economic volatility, ethnic conflict, and failing empire always led to spirals of lethal violence. The advance of science and technology has not eliminated the possibility of violence but may have made it more powerful than ever. The three causes are still in play. "Our job is to keep them from coinciding again."

Ferguson ended with a critique of Schwartz's book on scenario planning, The Art of the Long View, which he thought showed signs of "heuristic bias." When Schwartz asked Ferguson to expand on that idea, Ferguson pointed out there was a whole chapter in the book about "The Global Teenager," which seemed spurious. It merely reflected Schwartz's personal experience: "You were a teenager when teenagers mattered. "

Historians also have heuristic biases, Ferguson added, such as their expectation that "great events should have great causes." Historians have much to learn from complexity theory and evolution, he said. His own work with "counter-factual history" helps expose critical moments in history and provides a way to "think about what didn't happen." The counter-factual technique is an application of scenario thinking to the past.

In Schwartz's opening remarks, he said that his plans to write a book titled The Case for Optimism were derailed by reading Ferguson's The War of the World. He's been grappling with the issues Ferguson raised for 18 months. "You do alternative pasts, I do alternative futures. Where historians commune with the dead, futurists have imaginary friends."

Schwartz characterized Ferguson's view of history as basically down, with an upside possibility, whereas his own view was of history as basically up, with always the possibility of getting things wrong. For Schwartz, the second half of the 20th Century showed an upside momentum, with a fraction of the violent deaths---5% of humans killed violently in the first half, 0.2 % in the second half. The Cold War ended quietly. Women were liberated. China took off. Prosperity accelerated. Everything from Wikipedia to cellphones empowered the grassroots.

In response, Ferguson noted Schwartz's "faith in technology" and proposed it reflected his training as an engineer. "Aren't you like the pre-1914 people who said that war was impossible because of all the new technology and commerce?" Schwartz agreed that the parallel is worrying.

Ferguson said, "I think our difference is that I'm a pessimist and you're an optimist. You're Pangloss and I'm Cassandra." Schwartz noted that since his parents were in slave-labor camps in World War II, and he was born in a displaced-person camp after the war, "It would be churlish not to be an optimist." Ferguson said, "That would make me skeptical about technology. The world leader in science and technology in 1940 was Nazi Germany."

Questions from the audience ended with one asking whether optimism or pessimism was a more useful way to think about the future. Schwartz said, "Optimism lets you imagine how you can overcome problems, and those possibilities motivate change." Ferguson said, "You must always focus on worst-case scenarios, and history will teach them to you."

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