The Rise of The Cliodynamicists

Those who’ve read science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy will recall the character of Hari Seldon, a scientist/prophet who developed the mathematical discipline of psychohistory, which enabled him to both predict and guide future events.  He taught that the future would be punctuated by “Seldon Crises,” which mankind would have to successfully negotiate if the good guys were to win in the end.  There have been many would be Hari Seldons in real life, among whom Karl Marx was probably the most prominent.  The latest variation on the theme is known as cliodynamics, defined by the journal of that name as “…a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases.”

According to a recent paper by cliodynamicist Peter Turchin entitled, “Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010,” the Republic has so far successfully negotiated three Seldon Crisis analogs, and will encounter the next one around 2020.  The article includes a graph purporting to show how a composite of riots, lynchings, and terrorism peaked in the three earlier events, which occurred around 1870, 1920, and 1970, at neat 50-year intervals.  One enduring constant in history has certainly been the enduring popularity of fortune tellers.  There have been so many of them that some fraction of their predictions are bound to come true, or at least nearly true, thereby “proving” the general validity of the trade for the next generation of soothsayers.  This latest “scientific” version may be similarly “proved,” but I doubt it has a significant leg up over Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar.

Notice, for example, that the three earlier peaks happened to coincide with major wars, all of which had been predicted many years in advance of the time they actually happened, but none of which were provably inevitable, and, at least in the first two cases, were sparked, not by “macrosociological” cycles, but, in one instance, by the election of Abraham Lincoln, and in the next by the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.  A peak seems to be missing for 1820, and bona fide insurrections like Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion that were certainly much remarked on by people at the time they happened are missing from the data.  Similar “peaks” in other countries haven’t happened at neat intervals, nor have they been separated at anything like 50 years.  For example, in France, major revolutions occurred in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1870, with enough miscellaneous mayhem mixed in at random intervals between to make the U.S. “peaks” of 1920 and 1970 look like child’s play.

Well, what of it?  At worst the cliodynamicists may inspire a few people to take an interest in history, and at best they may significantly shorten the period of chaos between the rise and fall of galactic empires.

Hari Seldon

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