If history was more like science, would it predict the future? | Aeon Essays

… it is not at all clear that creating a science of history is actually a good thing. But what’s certainly dangerous is letting one particular perspective on what it means to study something scientifically take centre-stage in debating the issue. The methodological reflections of field scientists on how to do science outside the laboratory, and how to relate mathematical models to lived behaviour, should be invaluable to any serious effort to develop an evolutionary understanding of history. And since the only person to have created a sustained exploration of what happens when you apply cliodynamics to social policy is Isaac Asimov – I’m thinking of his deployment of ‘psychohistory’ in his Foundation series of novels (1942-93) – perhaps we should ask novelists to participate in this experiment too. Turchin might in 2010 have predicted political chaos for 2020, but it was Octavia Butler who, in The Parable of Talents (1998), predicted the rise of a US president who would oversee the disintegration of the social contract, all in the name of ‘making America great again’.

Mathematical, data-driven, quantitative models of human experience that aim at detachment, objectivity and the capacity to develop and test hypotheses need to be balanced by explicitly fictional, qualitative and imaginary efforts to create and project a lived future that enable their audiences to empathically ground themselves in the hopes and fears of what might be to come.
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