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History can’t be a science, but it can certainly be a pseudoscience

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In “Human cycles: History as science” (Nature, 01 August 2012), Laura Spinney reports,

To Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the appearance of three peaks of political instability at roughly 50-year intervals is not a coincidence. For the past 15 years, Turchin has been taking the mathematical techniques that once allowed him to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems, and applying them to human history. He has analysed historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence in the United States, and has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way.

He calls his effort to apply scientific methods to human history “cliodynamics.”

Cliodynamics is viewed with deep scepticism by most academic historians, who tend to see history as a complex stew of chance, individual foibles and one-of-a-kind situations that no broad-brush ‘science of history’ will ever capture. “After a century of grand theory, from Marxism and social Darwinism to structuralism and postmodernism, most historians have abandoned the belief in general laws,” said Robert Darnton, a cultural historian at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a column written in 1999.

Most think that phenomena such as political instability should be understood by constructing detailed narratives of what actually happened — always looking for patterns and regularities, but never forgetting that each outbreak emerged from a particular time and place.

For Turchin’s theory to work, he needs to be able to quantify when and where exactly the unrest will occur, and do so more accurately than general observation would permit. Otherwise, it is just another form of useless scientism.

One thing to keep in mind is that, as the human population’s average age rises in many places, due to low birth rates, we will likely see declines in general unrest. As Canadian demographer David Foot has put it, generally speaking,15 year-olds riot and throw stones; 50 year-olds don’t. The mayhem 50 year-olds cause is more likely to be white collar crime.

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