Cliodynamics: Treating History As Science and Why That’s a Bad Idea
By on August 21st, 2012

Often it has happened in the course of history and it might just repeat itself. Ironically. A beautiful idea it is, but like many before it, it might be completely wrong.

Cliodynamics is the name of this strange game, the game of detecting cycles in history and then using this data to predict the occurrence of similar events in the near future. Named after the Greek muse of history, Clio, and championed by a population dynamics expert at the University of Connecticut, Peter Turchin, Cliodynamics is fast making itself noticeable. Its claim of making future events predictable using the past events has drawn a small crop of believers and a larger group of dissidents. Fear not, it doesn’t use crystal balls; the choice of tools is limited to historical data and complex mathematics. The idea: find patterns in recurrent events and extrapolate into the future.

The endless loop

Where I stand

Personally, I belong to the dissident side. I don’t believe that it can work, but, just for the sake of convincing you, I’ll be the angel’s messenger rather than the devil’s advocate. Let me try, as hard as I can, to convince you that Cliodynamics is a genuinely scientific deal. I can always bash it up after that’s done!

The immediate question is how one can paint the whole tapestry of history – and what’s coming up – with such a broad brush! But that’s exactly what Cliodynamics is promising to cure. Right now, the reasons for collapse of large empires – pick one, say the Roman Empire – are all fuzzy. Various scenarios have been proposed. No one knows for sure. Cliodynamics wants to correct this vague outlook by introducing mathematical models backed up by solid data and then predictions ought to be made using this. History should be “predictive science”, says Peter Turchin, who was studying predator-prey problems in the wild, when he had an idea and turned his expertise in the area towards more sociological models.

On to the numbers

Turchin and a few advocates analyse the long-term trends in society using four parameters – population numbers, social structure, state strength and political instability. The dicey bit is to put proper numbers for these quantities. For abstract quantities like this, the definition is crucial, as that determines the measurement procedure. Often, however, a clear-cut definition is not available. Let’s just gloss over this point for the moment, being sure to return to it later on.

The general trend seems to be that a period of political instability, often accompanied by a period of violence, is preceded by a spell of increase in corruption and unpredictable political alliances or rise of unforeseen groups. While this is a broad trend, the challenge is to actually look into the details and come up with definitive correlations, positive or negative, between trends and the events.

But this is exactly how a historian is supposed to work – how is Turchin’s work different?

Endless Cycles of history

With the help of Sergey Nefedov of the Institute of History and Archeology, Yekaterinburg, Russia, Turchin found two independent cycles, which seem to define the course of history. One is called  the ‘Secular Cycle’ and the other one is the ‘father-and-son’ cycle.

Endless loops? (A Lorentz Attractor)

The Secular cycle lasts for a long time – sometimes as long as 200 to 300 years. Large empires grow, labour laws evolve, elitism escalates and political power transfers hands over this large timescales. Many events appear to be at play and each influences the outcome of history in their own way. Even religions can rise, fall and rise again according to the secular cycle.

The shorter cycle is the ‘father-son’ cycle, which lasts about 50-60 years, i.e. about two generations. An individual – the father – revolts against the working of the society or the class of which he is a member and the son bears the brunt of the backlash in a subdued fashion, relegated to the background by the thought that the opposing forces are too strong to fight back against.

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Author: Debjyoti Bardhan Google Profile for Debjyoti Bardhan
Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

Debjyoti Bardhan has written and can be contacted at debjyoti@techie-buzz.com.

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