Friday, November 18, 2016

Peter Turchin: Prophet

Scientist as prophet
Peter Turchin's most recent article (at the increasingly important website), "I Use the Science of Predicting the Rise and Fall of Societies", presents an excellent introduction to Turchin's work of late. I'm a fan of Turchin's (see some earlier reviews and comments here and here). I'm embarrassed that I haven't yet read Ages of Discord, but I certainly will. (#backlogged) This piece provides a concise summary of his project and his findings. 

But I have a bone to pick with it. 

Turchin writes of his theory: [T]his is a science-based forecast, not a 'prophecy'." He continues: "It's based on social science" involving "broad social trends and deep structural causes of these developments". Turchin goes on to eschew predictions of occasions as precise as an election outcome or the fate of an individual; he's talking about trends and structures, not events.  He likens himself of Isaac Asimov's character Hari Seldon his Asimov's sci-fi classic, Foundation. Like Seldon, Turchin believes that he discerns patterns that foretell an era of decline. But unlike Seldon, he does not recommend retreating to wait for the future; instead, Turchin advocates using this knowledge to shape current events. Turchin writes: 

[I]n 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.

Turchin rejects the Sheldon course of action that retreats in the face of what he sees as the immutable future. Instead, Turchin argues for action through what I would describe as reason, dialogue, and democracy. Turchin writes: 

[T]he only way forward is through an open discussion of problems and potential solutions and a broad-based collective action to implement them. It’s messy and slow, but that’s how lasting positive change usually comes about.

Turchin rejects any inevitability (unlike Sheldon) and believes that we can avert disaster because we can act. His peroration (and that's the best label) sums it up quite well. It deserves the italics: 

Our society, like all previous complex societies, is on a rollercoaster. Impersonal social forces bring us to the top; then comes the inevitable plunge. But the descent is not inevitable. Ours is the first society that can perceive how those forces operate, even if dimly. This means that we can avoid the worst — perhaps by switching to a less harrowing track, perhaps by redesigning the rollercoaster altogether. 

It's a slim reed to grasp at, but I'll take it. 

But wait, what's the bone that I had to pick with this? You may discern that I have great admiration for his project, and I do. No, the bone--about the size of a chicken wishbone--is this. Turchin claims not to engage in "prophecy." I think that he does engage in prophecy. Of course, if by prophecy one means predicting the future, such as fortune telling or soothsaying; no, of course, he's not doing that. But there is a biblical sense of prophecy that I think is applicable to his effort. The great prophets of the Hebrew tradition conveyed a message to the people: turn away from your evil ways or you will suffer a loss of favor with the Lord. Their message was not the forecast of an inevitable future, but of choices to be made. Follow the way of the Lord or suffer the consequences. Turchin, in a contemporary, scientific idiom, is saying the much the same thing. Like Biblical prophets, he may want to shun the mantle, but I think that its too late for him. He won't know where this will lead him because it depends upon what further research and thought and discussion reveal to him, but I don't think he can--and I hope he won't--shun the mantle. 


Peter Turchin said...

Hi Stephen, I am of course flattered by I still must decline the honor. Note that I did not come up with the title of the article, and it has been changed by my request. So, paraphrasing Isaac Newton


Stephen N. Greenleaf said...

Fair enough, Peter. The point was that the future is about choices. Of course, your knowledge comes from scientific investigation and not from revelation. But I believe it is not just a matter of expanding the realm of scientific knowledge that justifies your work and that of others like you, but it also reflects a recognition of civic duty. Scientists in fields like cliodynamics, the environment, and climate change, and other fields that directly affect the public good require scientists like you to speak out in the public realm as well as in the scientific one. Newton's work was fascinating, ground-breaking, and changed our view of the universe, but it did not, other than in the most oblique way, immediately change the course of empires or daily lives. A good deal of scientific research today has the potential to do so. "With great knowledge comes great responsibility and great power"--a variant on a superhero saying that pops into my mind, but it contains a measure of truth. This is the real mantle I want to foist upon you and your colleagues. I think you wear it well.