Cliodynamics And The Lack Of A Hari Seldon

Cliodynamics And The Lack Of A Hari Seldon
That mark on Seldon's lapel resembles a cross, no?

There will be no Hari Seldon. But there will be prophets.

If there is no Seldon, there will be no psychohistory, the fictional astonishingly accurate mathematical science predicting gross human movements Isaac Asimov created for his Foundation novels.

Seldon and his followers were supposed to have discovered mathematical tricks that turned history into a science. Input certain measures and out come trajectories which are not certain but close to it, especially as the number of people increase.

These same occult magic tricks are searched for in reality by any number of folks with access to a computer. On the one hand are the “artificial intelligence” set who believe, falsely, that human intelligence “has” an equation. These people confess not knowing Seldon’s equations, but are sure their well greased abacuses will find them once the number of wooden rods and beads become sufficiently dense. For a comparison of wooden abacus to electronic computer, see this series.

On the other hand are those who might be classed as analytic historians. They’ve invented for themselves “cliodynamics” which is, according to Wikipedia, “a transdisciplinary area of research integrating cultural evolution, economic history/cliometrics, macrosociology, the mathematical modeling of historical processes during the longue durée, and the construction and analysis of historical databases.” Nice boast!

One cliodynamiticist is Peter Turchin, “an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut and Vice President of the Evolution Institute”, who input the article “Entering the Age of Instability after Trump: Why social instability and political violence is predicted to peak in the 2020s.”

Turchin predicts a coming doom, a not unfamiliar theme to regular readers. He says he’s tracking “40 seemingly disparate…social indicators” which are “leading indicators of political turmoil”. He predicts peak turmoil in the 2020s. Which is close.

Some of his indicators: “growing income and wealth inequality, stagnating and even declining well-being of most Americans, growing political fragmentation and governmental dysfunction”, all well known, too, as Turchin admits. He pegs “elite overproduction” as the unsung measure of doom.

Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.

This exists, but its importance is unknown. That we have lost the story and have turned inward and truly self-centered might have more destructive force. That, and our elites have largely lost their minds. All crises are spiritual crises. Whoever wins this coming war will be the greater spiritual force.

Turchin’s language is saturated in Seldonism.

I find myself in the shoes of Hari Seldon, a fictional character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, whose science of history (which he called psychohistory) predicted the decline and fall of his own society. Should we follow Seldon’s lead and establish a Cliodynamic Foundation somewhere in the remote deserts of Australia?

This would be precisely the wrong thing to do. It didn’t work even in Isaac Asimov’s fictional universe. The problem with secretive cabals is that they quickly become self-serving, and then mire themselves in internecine conflict. Asimov came up with the Second Foundation to watch over the First. But who watches the watchers? In the end it all came down to a uniquely powerful and uniquely benevolent super-robot, R. Daneel Olivaw.

Don’t wait up for telepathic robots to save civilization (as the abacus article argues).

Another important consideration is that in Foundation Seldon’s equations told him that it would be impossible to stop the decline of the Galactic Empire—Trantor must fall. In real life, thankfully, things are different. And this is another way in which the forecasts of cliodynamics differ from prophecies of doom. They give us tools not only to understand the problem, but also potentially to fix it.

But to do it, we need to develop much better science. What we need is a nonpolitical, indeed a fiercely non-partisan, center/institute/think tank that would develop and refine a better scientific understanding of how we got into this mess; and then translate that science into policy to help us get out of it.

Brother Turchin, it ain’t gonna happen. Empires fall. None yet has found the solution to eternal life. I don’t usually say this, but, Brother, trust your equations. Creating yet another think tank that issues policy reports is foredoomed. Save your time and money.

If there is any hope, and there always is, it is in a spiritual regeneration. Making that happen is not so easy.


  1. Sander van der Wal

    When Benford, Brin et all expanded Asimovs Foundation series, they had Olivaw and his robot team manufacture the First human Empire too. With the extermination of all other intelligent life in the Milky Way galaxy by the robots. They were after all programmed to protect humans at all costs, and themselves second.

    They also helped Seldon a ‘lot’ with getting Psychohistory accepted at the end of the First Empire, and the robots ran much of the Second Foundation too.

    One wonders for the need to identify with an operation that was portrayed as a cover-up on a galactic scale.

  2. Kip Hansen

    Turchin is like many practitioners of palm reading and crystal ball gazers — they predict things that have always happened and will happen in the future as a matter of course along the lines of “You will meet a stranger…” of “Someone will die…” Will of course you will and of course someone, somewhere, will die! It is a parlor trick — I used to do this kind of thing as a young (teenaged) neighborhood performing magician — developed quite a reputation.

    Delusional — Feynman would say “fooling himself”.

  3. Leo

    Set aside for a moment the benevolent telepathic robots with the “positronic” brains, and imagine the world that Asimov is conjuring up. We have a guardian class, trained in esoteric knowledge, directing all the rest of us. This is an argument for the administrative state, all dressed up in futuristic clothes. Reread the original Foundation series. It’s not a world that looks appealing on close examination.

  4. Leo

    There’s a pattern here that can be seen in a lot of writing by intellectuals. Here’s this terrible problem on the horizon, which my advanced science can detect. We need more research to find the solution and then the will to implement it. Another example is the notion that new technologies will throw a lot of people out of work and *expert* guidance is needed to find and implement solutions. This is an appeal for money and power.

    That bit about “nonpartisan” is a real kicker. Of course it’s partisan, in favor of the administrative class.

  5. Ye Olde Statistician

    Ah, but it is so much fun. When I was pitching story with Stan Schmidt one time at ANALOG, I suggested that psychohistory had already been invented a hundred and fifty years ago (at that time). “They learned how to forecast the future and naturally got it completely screwed up.” Then I had to justify the suggestion by writing a story that became my first SF novel: In the Country of the Blind. I followed this up with a two-part article on the mathematics of history and the biology of history. The great accomplishment of the novel was inventing the term “cliology,” which seems to have caught on somewhat. For the second edition, I had to change all the references to “the National Data Net” to “the Internet” because in the meantime someone went and invented the damned thing.

    I could not find “An Introduction to Psychohistory” in the Net, but I did find parts of the novel:

  6. Professor Prem raj Pushpakaran

    Professor Prem raj Pushpakaran writes — 2020 marks the birth centenary year of Douglass Cecil North, who pioneered the cliometrics !!!

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