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.

An example

Let’s focus on one main graph, which even Turchin devotes much time to in his blog.

The US political violence database shows distinct peaks with a fifty year cycle. According to this, the next peak in the pattern of violence will occur in 2020. The short cycle is so very striking that one may tend to forget the longer secular cycle, marked at the top. The second cycle is just starting. Turchin says that the long secular cycles are much more interesting than the shorter 50-year cycles, primarily because these longer cycles are better understood and also because these are generic features of society and the period of instability in them.

But aren’t these cycles present just in older societies? Do they percolate into modern societies? The answer is not known, but Turchin is keeping his eyes open.

Turchin is careful to point out that “we do not mean strict cycles in the mathematical sense”. He explains how non-linear cycles are involved and factors from both within the society and outside it affect the cycle.

Criticism

The greatest criticism for this field, which might grow or not depending on the nature of future data, is specificity, or rather the lack of it. When you try to make history into a scientific subject, you have to incorporate two important ingredients: explanatory and predictive power. It must be able to explain the nature of political instability as part of a greater underlying framework or concept and/or must be able to predict some quantities based on that. At the moment, Cliodynamics fails at both ends – miserably!

Also, if you’re looking for patterns, you can always find them. Take a look at the graph on the US political instability presented above. What about the not-so-small peaks that occur between the two large peaks? Further, look at the peak at 1970. The height of this peak is actually lower than the intermediate peaks that occur at about 1890. This seems pretty much like pick and choose in order to find. How do you know which events to take and which to ignore?

Crucially, this type of pattern-based model-building leaves out very important major events. Would you expect this kind of model to predict an event like 9/11? Given that this is so very important an event in world history, won’t it be a shame if this much of non-linear mathematics cannot predict it?

What I am trying to drive home at is simply this: Cliodynamics and the patterns that it looks at may be simple flukes. You’d definitely find patterns if you look at a long record hard enough and historians have always known that. The use of non-linear mathematics and a large database of historical events ought to give back something more.

History isn’t repetitive in cycles; it might be illusory to think so. With the human society constantly changing and modernizing in a monotonic fashion, are we to really expect concrete cycles embedded? Then what explains the monotonic behaviour? If the cycles are not that stringent, why call them cycles at all?

Ironically, Cliodynamics might itself be like the cycle of history which predicts that these kinds of theories crop up, beautiful enough they are to attract a few proponents, and eventually die out. I have no idea about the periodicity of this kind of events, but it might just be a case of déjà vu.

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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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