psycho-history [Hari Seldon to the rescue!]

A “long read” article in the Guardian a few weeks ago sounds like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation‘s core concept, namely psychohistory, turning into a real academic discipline! In the books of this fantastic series, the father of this new science of predictive mathematical (or statistical) sociology, Hari Seldon, makes predictions that extend so far in the future that, at every major crisis of Asimov’s galactic empire, he delivers a per-registered message that indicates how to cope with the crisis to save the empire. Or so it seems! (As a teenager, I enjoyed the Foundation books very much, reading the three first volumes several times, to the point I wonder now if they were influential to my choice of a statistics major…! Presumably not, but it makes a nice story!!! Actually, Paul Krugman blames Asimov for his choice of economics as being the closest to psychohistory.)

“I assumed that the time would come when there would be a science in which things could be predicted on a probabilistic or statistical basis (…) can’t help but think it would be good, except that in my stories, I always have opposing views. In other words, people argue all possible… all possible… ways of looking at psychohistory and deciding whether it is good or bad. So you can’t really tell. I happen to feel sort of on the optimistic side. I think if we can somehow get across some of the problems that face us now, humanity has a glorious future, and that if we could use the tenets of psychohistory to guide ourselves we might avoid a great many troubles. But on the other hand, it might create troubles. It’s impossible to tell in advance.” I. Asimov

The Guardian entry is about Peter Turchin, a biologist who had “by the late 1990s answered all the ecological questions that interested him” and then turned his attention to history, creating a new field called cliodynamics. Which bears eerie similarities with Seldon’s psychohistory! Using massive databases of historical events (what is a non-historical event, by the way?!) to predict the future. And relying on a premise of quasi-periodic cycles to fit such predictions with a whiff of Soviet-era theories… I did not read in depth the entire paper (it’s a “long read”, remember?!) and even less the background theory, but I did not spot there a massive support from a large academic community for Turchin’s approach (mentioned in the psychohistory entry in Wikipedia). And, while this is not a major argument from Feyerabend’s perspective (of fundamental scientific advances resulting from breaks from consensus), it seems hard to think of a predictive approach that is not negatively impacted by singularity events, from the emergence of The Mule in Foundation, to the new scale of challenges posed by the acceleration of the climate collapse or the societal globalisation cum communitarian fragmentation caused by social media. And as a last warning, a previous entry in the same column wanted to warn readers “how statistics lost their power and big data controlled by private companies is taking over”, hence going the opposite direction.

2 Responses to “psycho-history [Hari Seldon to the rescue!]”

  1. Pierre Jacob Says:

    Yes!! Cliodynamics!! Such a fascinating endeavor!

    The Foundation books provide such a great motivation for the field of statistics. Personally, it really contributed to my initial interest in the field, at a time when reading through ugly SAS outputs in intro stats classes had quite the opposite effect.

    In passing there’s a video of Dan Crisan from Imperial on psychohistory https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJPrarj1-sM&feature=emb_logo

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