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If Johannes Gutenberg (inventor of the printing press) had succeeded as a mirror salesman, would literacy remain a luxury that only society’s wealthiest members could afford? If Martin Luther (leader of the Protestant Reformation) hadn’t pledged his life to God after lightning nearly struck him and his horse, would the Catholic Church still rule over Western Europe? If Edward Jenner (father of immunology) had ignored the advice of the mentor who encouraged him to “try, don’t think,” would human life expectancy ever have eclipsed fifty years of age? These questions, and others like them, belong to a field of study known as “counterfactual history.” Its practitioners invite us to imagine what our world might look like today had the events of yesterday unfolded differently. (more…)
A well-known Native American proverb states: “Never criticize a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.” This is straightforward advice, yet it can be notoriously difficult to implement. According to social psychologists, we tend to underestimate the role that people’s circumstances play in shaping their behavior. Stanford researcher Lee Ross called this phenomenon the “fundamental attribution error.”[i] It implies that we often judge the actions of others even before we have considered how we might act if we were placed in a similar situation. As a result, we grant the benefit of the doubt less often than we should. (more…)
Great orators understand the power of repetition. Mark Antony, for instance, gained the trust of the hostile masses gathered at Caesar’s funeral by addressing them, again and again, as his “friends.” For Martin Luther King Jr., the refrains were “I have a dream” and “Let freedom reign!” The man at whose memorial King spoke –– Abraham Lincoln –– concluded the Gettysburg Address by promising that “the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” But perhaps no leader knew how to emphasize a point better than Winston Churchill. In his first speech to parliament as British Prime Minister, Churchill, who took office at the start of WWII, guaranteed: “In one word: Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be –– for without victory, there is no survival.” A month later, Churchill would restate his position even more forcefully:
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.