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Does study of the past enable us to predict the future as Isaac Asimov postulated?


Professor Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut thinks it does.  He uses common statistical analysis on historical records to quantify what has happened in the past, and to spot repeatable patterns that will enable accurate predictions to be made about future events.  Some of these are about the questions that have concerned historians since Vico: What is it that leads to the rise and fall of civilizations?  Others focus on more immediate concerns, with Turchin predicting that unless something changes, we’re in for a wave of widespread violence in about 2020, including riots and terrorism.

This resembles a little the fictional science of ‘psychohistory’ practised by mathematical seer Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation.”  This was a book that gripped me utterly in my mid-teens.  The sweeping scale of it, unfolding across the million worlds of the Galactic Empire, and the use of historical patterns to predict, and even to shape, the outcome of future crises, were heady ideas.  I actually met Isaac Asimov many years later and told him that, as I imagine many others must have done.  Is this just fiction, or does Turchin’s ‘Cliodynamics’ give it substance in reality?  We all use the past as data when we formulate theories about how the future will turn out.  Candle flame + finger = pain.  Theory: candle flames always hurt fingers.  This is a theory that predicts the future and can be tested.  When it comes to the forces that deal with human interactions, however, there are key differences.  Human beings often change their behaviour when they learn things; candle flames do not.

Karl Popper’s “The Poverty of Historicism” made a compelling case that human futures are inherently unpredictable.  One argument he cited is that how we act depends to some extent on the scientific knowledge available to us.  Since we cannot predict future knowledge (without it becoming present knowledge), we cannot predict what people will do.  Others have tried this kind of statistical prediction.  The investors we call ‘chartists’ make investment decisions based on what markets have done in the past.  They do not seem to be any more successful than those who use judgement, and I am unaware of any of them who predicted the 2008 crash.  The failings of modern economics derive in part from the insistence of most practitioners in expressing it mathematically, and losing vital information in the simplification that this requires.

I go with the view that the future is inherently unpredictable, qualified by my acceptance that there are broad general patterns to be discerned.  The notion that “revolutions tend to occur against a background of rising expectations” is one that helps historians to interpret some past events, for example.  But these general patterns will not tell us with any kind of mathematical precision what is going to happen in the future.  We can only find that out by visiting it.


One Response

  1. Interestingly, Turchin himself claims that the article in “Wired” was “sensationalised” and denies that Cliometrics can actually predict the future except in the broad sense of identifying probabilistic trends:


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