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A decade ago, this scientist predicted 2020 would bring 'peak' chaos to the U.S.
Can researchers use data science to accurately predict the future?
- Cliodynamics is a relatively new area of research that aims to take a scientific approach to studying history.
- In 2012, a scientist named Peter Turchin published a paper describing how political instability in the U.S. tends to repeat over short- and long-term cycles.
- Turchin suggests that political instability in the U.S. is driven by underlying factors like falling wages, wealth inequality, and intra-elite competition.
If we don't understand the mistakes from our history, we may be doomed to repeat them. But what if we could use science to not only better understand our past, but also make predictions about our future?
One scientist's research suggests that may be possible.
In 2012, Peter Turchin published a study in the Journal of Peace Research that offered an ominous prediction: The U.S will suffer a "peak" of instability in 2020. Today, that prediction seems to have been spot on. The nation is suffering from a deadly pandemic, social unrest over police brutality, and the reliably chaotic state of Trump-era politics.
But how did Turchin get it right?
As a mathematician and evolutionary biologist, Turchin is a key figure in a young and controversial field called cliodynamics. (The name comes from "Clio," who was the muse of history in Greek mythology.) This multidisciplinary area of research examines history through a quantitative approach, essentially treating history as science.
Cliodynamics practitioners often take advantage of newly digitized historical information, creating and testing mathematical models that aim to explain big questions about the past, like why do empires rise and fall? In blunter terms, the goal is to show that "history is not 'just one damn thing after another," as Turchin told Nature. Here's how Turchin described cliodynamics in an article published in The Conversation:
"...the adherents of cliodynamics treat historical record just as, say, evolutionary biologists treat the palaeontological record. Theories are constructed and based on general principles and tested empirically with comprehensive databases. In short, we use the standard scientific method that worked so well in physics, biology, and many social sciences."
In his 2012 study, Turchin examined the history of sociopolitical instability in the U.S. from 1780 to 2010. To do this, he used data on about 1,600 violent political incidents from American history, such as lynchings, riots, and terrorism.
He combined that data with a model that factored in broader societal forces, such as falling wages, wealth inequality, changes in population, and increased competition for elite jobs.
The results revealed that American political violence tends to occur in regular cycles, with valleys of peace punctuated by peaks of violence and unrest.
One is a short cycle that occurs about every 50 years, with peaks in 1870, 1920 and 1970. Turchin calls this oscillation the "father-son" cycle: the father perceives a social injustice and revolts, while the son's generation deals with the aftermath and abstains from revolution. Then, the third generation repeats the cycle.
The second cycle is much longer, peaking once every two to three centuries. The cycle begins with a society that's roughly egalitarian, but over time its population increases, labor supply outpaces demand, and wealth inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Eventually, societies tend to collapse or suffer widespread political instability.
Turchin's model is based on structural-demographic theory, which seeks to understand the broad underlying forces that cause societies to become unstable. The theory has revealed that regular cycles of political instability have occurred not only in the U.S., but also in the Roman Empire, Egypt, China, and Russia.
To better understand the theory, try thinking about the causes of revolutions as being similar to the tectonic processes that cause earthquakes, as Turchin and economic historian Andrey Korotayev wrote in a 2020 paper:
"In both revolutions and earthquakes it is useful to distinguish 'pressures' (structural conditions, which build up slowly) from 'triggers' (sudden releasing events, which immediately precede a social or geological eruption). Specific triggers of political upheavals are difficult, perhaps even impossible to predict.
On the other hand, structural pressures build up slowly and more predictably, and are amenable to analysis and forecasting. Furthermore, many triggering events themselves are ultimately caused by pent-up social pressures that seek an outlet—in other words, by the structural factors."
Turchin's model found that violent political outbursts in the U.S. tend to peak when these types of structural factors are stressed in specific ways. Turchin noted three key drivers of instability that, like deadwood waiting for a forest fire, have been building up over the past several decades: wealth inequality, increased competition for elite jobs, and rising national debt.
"...each [of these factors] did not develop in isolation; they are actually interconnected at a fundamental level. Moreover, our historical research shows that this combination of trends is typical of historical societies that are in the pre-crisis phase."
So, while the U.S. is going through a tense period, it may only be just the beginning of a larger crisis. Turchin even told Time that it's possible that tensions "may escalate all the way to a civil war."
But collapse isn't inevitable. As researchers continue to develop a deeper understanding of the underlying forces that drive political instability, society is in a unique position to pull back from the brink, as Turchin wrote in an article for Aeon:
"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."
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.