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[P]
Non-Predictive Psychohistory

By 11223 in Culture
Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 01:37:39 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)
Culture

In Foundation, Asimov waved his hands a bit about a future science of psychohistory, which was the use of trends of large groups of people to predict the far-away future in detail. The ability to predict the course of humanity tens of thousands of years into the future is, of course, something we may never experience. But much social science today is based upon examining groups of people and predicting their actions. Is it possible to predict the overall actions of a large group of people? Do rules determine their behaviour? Quite a few geeks have always been fascinated by Asimov's mass psychology. In some areas, he was right.


The answers seem (to me) to be No and Yes, in respective order. This means that the problem of predicting the overall actions of a group of people over a large period of time cannot be accomplished, but these actions are not random or based upon individual psychology: substituting any one person in the group for a different person would not affect the overall actions of a sufficently large group.

However, certain things may be predictable: The outcome of a vote, for instance, may be closely tied to several factors in a large group of people, such as overall contentment of the group with the situation at hand, and general emotional factors. The level of non-voting, as another example, may also be predictable.

But certain factors also prevent large-scale tracking. It's rather like a local linear approximation to a curve: Within a certain range of the point of approximation, the approximation is good. As the distance from the point increases, the accuracy of the approximation also tends to decrease. We can clearly see this in one area that has a large general impact on society: Science. In the Sciences, changes in direction occur so often that it is almost impossible to predict. One new development may spark ten others, each in turn sparking ten others, none of which are directly connected. The effect of scientific development upon society's actions is clear: if we all decided to merge our brains with our computers, would that not foil most any prediction?

However, if we did merge our brains with computers, our set of reactions would change but stay "rational": it would be still possible to predict items such as the outcomes of votes after the change. However, any prediction made before the change would almost certainly be foiled.

What does this mean? It does imply (or assume) that the actions of society are determined by large-group thinking (mob action). But this level of action is non-predictable except in very narrow cases. Perhaps with further development of fields like psychology and economics we can begin to make small predictions about the actions of society. However, there is a limit of accuracy: Asimov's vision can never be realized. I'd like to call what can be realized (that is, the small predictions of actions of society) non-predictive psychohistory: it does not predict the general actions of society, but through the study of the actions of groups, we can begin to make smaller predictions. The possibility of the development of non-predictive psychohistory remains in the future's hands.

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Non-Predictive Psychohistory | 56 comments (52 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
Already happenning (3.44 / 9) (#1)
by maketo on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 12:32:39 PM EST

There are centres employed by <substitute your favourite intelligence agency here> whose sole task is to sift through millions of pages of materials published in different countries and deduce conclusions from that. This mass of data is then combined with data gathered otherwise (satellites, operatives in the field, normal comunication between services etc.) and then scenarios are derived. A lot of them. This is done on a large scale (years ahead) and on a small scale (as in an example of a local war recently conducted by the NATO or United States).
agents, bugs, nanites....see the connection?
Some relevant points (4.72 / 11) (#2)
by SIGFPE on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 12:40:11 PM EST

Some food for thought:

You might like to read Karl Popper's argument against historicism - in effect an argument against psychohistory. I did a quick web search and found this though I think Popper's original text is more readable.

You're also hitting against a variant of Godel's theorem - the Halting Problem. Some problems are inherently unsolvable because any attempt to solve them can be turned directly into a failure because they look succesful! Again I did a quick web search and found this.

Another subject you might like to consider that is very close to what you are talking about is economics. In particular the impact on markets of widespread algorithms for predicting markets. Someone else may be able to find some good links for this subject.

You might like also to consider non-deterministic strategies in game theory. Consider something like scissors, paper, stone (RoShamBo). In a sense the best strategy is to be unpredictable and choose each of scissors, paper and stone with exactly a 1/3 probability. So though you can't predict individual plays you can can make accurate statements about the statistics of plays.

And on another note I'd like to question this statement
However, if we did merge our brains with computers, our set of reactions would change but stay "rational"
Why do you assume that merging our brains with computers would result in rationality? Rationality presupposes access to all of the required information and enough CPU to process it. In the event of a shortage of either you need to replace algorithms with heuristics that take a short cut. Heuristics can sometimes look suspiciously like irrationality or emotion.
SIGFPE
Rational (3.00 / 1) (#11)
by 11223 on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 01:50:03 PM EST

Well, my meaning of "rational" was more along the lines of "following rules" than the emotional meaning. And besides, taking a large enough statistical sample would eliminate individual emotional differences and leave the "common emotional ground".

--
The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.
[ Parent ]

Rationality Lectures (none / 0) (#47)
by piwowk on Thu Oct 19, 2000 at 09:16:57 AM EST

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Minds and Machines program runs a series of lectures each semester on some AI topic. This semester the lecture series is about rationality. Dr. John Pollock (U. of AZ) is speaking tonight. The lectures run every Thursday at 7:30 pm in the Sage Lab for those of you close enough to get to Troy, NY.

[ Parent ]
Would be nice (none / 0) (#48)
by 11223 on Thu Oct 19, 2000 at 12:21:40 PM EST

If I were in the right state. And from your comment title I thought you were going to lecture me on rationality :)

--
The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.
[ Parent ]

Hmm... (Foundation Spoilers) (3.71 / 7) (#3)
by Matrix on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 01:01:27 PM EST

Well, remember that in the Foundation series, what eventually screwed up Seldon's predictions was something like that. A series of events that no-one could have forseen, and that he, with all his scientific knowledge, was unable to account for. Even substituting a different person in could've made a difference. What if one of the Empire's leaders wasn't a total pushover, but instead a fair, just, charismatic, and stern ruler? What if he managed to put the Empire back in order, and set up a system that managed to overtake both Foundations in terms of stability and strength?

Short-term predictions are already being used, if I understand correctly, but on a very limited scale. Things like market predictions, sales predictions, election predictions... Isn't part of the Napster affair based off the fact that the record industry's projections showed a greater growth than really occured, so they claim, and they blame the shortfall on online music? (Becase sales sure as heck haven't dropped)


Matrix
"...Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions. It's the only way to make progress."
- Lord Vetinari, pg 312 of the Truth, a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett

Yet more of Asimov's mistakes (spoiler) (none / 0) (#16)
by itsbruce on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 03:26:38 PM EST

Well, remember that in the Foundation series, what eventually screwed up Seldon's predictions was something like that. A series of events that no-one could have forseen, and that he, with all his scientific knowledge, was unable to account for.
Which should have been bloody obvious from the start. It's one thing charting a safe path through future history - quite another saying "that's the way it'll happen". But Asimov's First Foundation citizens happily accepted that Seldon would predict not only general economic trends but exact dates and names, centuries into the future.

You need a bunch of telepathic brain-washers to make it work - and to make everyone believe it. I wonder if Asimov planned that from the start or if he realised later and had to improvise. I gave up on it after "Second Foundation", just too silly.

--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
Actually... (none / 0) (#20)
by Matrix on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 04:25:03 PM EST

He didn't predict exact dates and names. I don't think any of his "prediction" holograms used exact names of anyone. He predicted dates fairly accurately, but that was mostly Asimov taking some liberties with what's possible for the sake of having a good story. (Which, IMHO, the Foundation books are)

Also remember that it was originally written as a series of short stories. So Asimov probably changed his plan several times in the course of writing it.


Matrix
"...Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions. It's the only way to make progress."
- Lord Vetinari, pg 312 of the Truth, a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett
[ Parent ]

Mmm, hmm... (none / 0) (#24)
by itsbruce on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 05:22:16 PM EST

He didn't predict exact dates and names. I don't think any of his "prediction" holograms used exact names of anyone.
Yes, he did. In the first book, the first leader of the First Foundation can't see a way out of his problems and so announces that there'll be one of those timed videocasts from Seldon the next morning. Bang on time, there is. In the book with the Mule - "Second Foundation", wasn't it? - people realise things have gone wrong because Seldon's videocasts describe organisations and events that nobody has heard of. I'd have to go find one of the books for exact quotes but he definitely mentions organisations by name.

To keep everyone believing that, the Second Foundation would have to brainwash the whole population of the universe, not just key personnel.

--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
No, no, no (4.00 / 1) (#31)
by 11223 on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 10:13:40 AM EST

He didn't predict exact names and places. In the example with the Mule (in Foundation and Empire, btw) he said something about "independent traders" - which would imply Seldon knew that the forces of trade wanted to break away from the increasingly dictatorish Foundation. Not so hard to predict, eh? It's certainly not the same thing as names and places.

I know these books forward and backwards.

--
The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.
[ Parent ]

Even Hari Seldon knew it wasn't perfect (3.00 / 6) (#4)
by Garc on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 01:10:16 PM EST

The next paragraph contains something of a spoiler for those who haven't read the trilogy.

The Second Foundation was comprised of psychoistorians (is that the correct term?), because Hari Seldon knew that there were changes that his science couldn't forsee. The purpose of the second foundation was to update the plan as necessary, to make sure it reached appropriate end.

Perhaps that's not as far off as you think. As someone already mentioned, intelligence agencies try to predict want countries (mobs of people) will do based on some information we gather from them. It will never be perfect, as it is subjective to opinions, but as our knowledge of behavior gets better, maybe it will be possible to compute more accurate statistics about how mobs will act in a circumstance, given their emotions, polical system, religion, climate, etc.

garc

--
Tomorrow is going to be wonderful because tonight I do not understand anything. -- Niels Bohr
One commandment to rule them all: (2.28 / 7) (#5)
by sugarman on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 01:13:33 PM EST

This says it best.

=)
--sugarman--

"...one ring to rule them all..." (none / 0) (#37)
by piwowk on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 02:15:05 PM EST

I don't know any cynical skydivers, it's just not one of those sports you do if your a cynic.

[ Parent ]
Are you JonKatz? (1.62 / 8) (#8)
by greyrat on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 01:29:48 PM EST

The style and content is right...
~ ~ ~
Did I actually read the article? No. No I didn't.
"Watch out for me nobbystyles, Gromit!"

Couldn't be... (2.00 / 3) (#9)
by porovaara on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 01:31:25 PM EST

Couldn't be John Katz... it was well under 5000 words... also there were no mentions of the poor children or how bad it is to be a misunderstood geek.


[ Parent ]
How dare you! (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by 11223 on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 01:54:04 PM EST

I at least thought I made sense here.... no repetition, a generally well organized topic, etc. Are you suggesting that I didn't make sense?

Me? Sense no make gorilla? Way no.

--
The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.
[ Parent ]

Babble (none / 0) (#53)
by Kaa on Fri Oct 20, 2000 at 10:42:18 AM EST

Are you suggesting that I didn't make sense?

Sorry to break the news to you. It was quite incoherent. Not up to Jon Katz's standards of babble, of course, but you can always dream...

Kaa
Kaa's Law: In any sufficiently large group of people most are idiots.


[ Parent ]
Psychohistory (3.00 / 2) (#13)
by Beorn on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 02:07:27 PM EST

I loved the Foundation books. They were the first books that made me doubt religion, and they introduced me to this kind of ambitious massive-scale rationalist idealism I feel is central to being a nerd. Psychohistory is nonsense, but the idea is fantastic.

If there's any way to predict the future of a society, it must come from comparisons with the past. We can't do this today, because we're still heading into uncharted territory, but historians 10 or 50 thousand years from now should be able to see clear patterns in history, (if we're still here, and historical records have been preserved.)

In other words, historical predictions are limited to things that has happened before. This is far from Hari Seldon, who predicted *new* things, and to a degree of accuracy far beyond ludicrous.

Btw, I recommend everyone read Was Hari Seldon Pulling Our Leg? by Mark Rosenfelder.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]

re: psychohistory (4.50 / 2) (#36)
by piwowk on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 02:11:52 PM EST

I too loved the Foundation books, but I have to disagree with your statement that "We can't do this today, because we're still heading into uncharted territory..."

Why the implicit assumption that in ten thousand years we won't be in 'uncharted waters'? And why the assumption that WE will still be here? Humanity as we know it is unlikely to exist in ten thousand years, and again forty thousand after that.

There are already clear patterns in history. The Warring States period of Chinese history shows us how empires grow out of grass-roots movements, become beaurocratic and then corrupt and are overthrown by the people.

I think that behavioral scientists are out there (still) to demonstrate that you CAN predict the future through understanding the nature of the individuals, and their collectives. Will we achieve Seldon's accuracy? Who can say... compared to the state of humanity in the Foundation series we aren't even a crawling baby yet. We should not be so presumptive as to assign the future of Humanity any limitations.

cheers,
Keith

[ Parent ]

Patterns in history (4.00 / 1) (#45)
by Beorn on Thu Oct 19, 2000 at 05:44:50 AM EST

There are already clear patterns in history. The Warring States period of Chinese history shows us how empires grow out of grass-roots movements, become beaurocratic and then corrupt and are overthrown by the people.

There are many things to learn by history, but history up till now is mostly anecdotal evidence, (once upon a time *this* happened, and *that* followed). There are simply *no* past societies which can be fully compared to anything in the world today. At best we see similarities.

The patterns I see in history primarily concern basic human psychology, and basic society structures. Your example of China illustrates the way some societies under given circumstances may change in certain cyclic patterns. But *none* of this can tell us how the world will look in 2050.

Why the implicit assumption that in ten thousand years we won't be in 'uncharted waters'? And why the assumption that WE will still be here?

Actually I didn't assume that, if you'll read my post again, but lets just say that it's the premise for this whole debate. 10 000 years may be a bit short to recognize some of the more subtler patterns in history, but at least we'll know much *more* than we do today. We'll propably know, for instance, more about the development of capitalist democracies like our own, unless they're made obsolete by technology.

We'll also know more about the mental limits of homo sapiens, and the relationship between genes and cultural influence. In 50 000 years, we'll know even more.

But of course, this is only true if we're still here, and all this data is actually available to us, which isn't certain at all. Like in another Asimov story, Nightfall, part of these historical patterns might include destruction of the historical records themselves.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

re: patterns in history (4.00 / 1) (#46)
by piwowk on Thu Oct 19, 2000 at 08:58:11 AM EST

Excellent. I agree with your points. Perhaps assumptions weren't as clearly stated as they could have been, but that's that. Let us continue with:

The patterns I see in history primarily concern basic human psychology, and basic society structures. Your example of China illustrates the way some societies under given circumstances may change in certain cyclic patterns. But *none* of this can tell us how the world will look in 2050.

I agree that historical patterns give us broad definitions of social psychology, and that the generally anecdotal nature of these observations limits their use. But let's build upon the assumptions that humanity will continue to record, in a rigorous scientific fashion, it's existence, science, psychology and social disposition, etc. So our future people, in ten thousand years, have exacting data to compare and build upon. Not only can they see the broad behaviour of groups of people, they have recorded the "sparks" that touched-off movements, and changed the tides of history.

I assert that with the accumulation of a significant body of knowledge of human history predictions about the future of humanity can be made with a respectable level of accuracy. This is generally how predictive analysis works. To date it's just been on a much smaller scale than with a (whole) population.

The whole of our predictive ability relies on two things,
1) Objectivity of the observer(s)
2) Depth of knowledge
Failing either of these two will cause the endevour to fail. However with the right accumulation of data, the right systhesis of knowledge, and patient application of the scientific method "psychohistory" could very well come to be.

cheers,
Keith

[ Parent ]

Self-consciousness (3.00 / 1) (#51)
by Beorn on Fri Oct 20, 2000 at 04:45:52 AM EST

I assert that with the accumulation of a significant body of knowledge of human history predictions about the future of humanity can be made with a respectable level of accuracy.

I agree, but I think there's another factor here which is a kind of uncertainty principle: Self-consciousness. If I point out what you're about to do next, you might very well do something else. This might seem obvious, but I think it seriously jeapordizes psychohistory. Lets say in the year 12 000 humanity is nearing the end of the third identical historical cycle in a row, all of which have ended in disaster. If somebody points this out, this in itself may be enough to change the outcome, creating a new pattern with a longer period.

100 000 years later, this new, more intricate pattern is discovered, changing it again. Every time a pattern is discovered, it automatically changes to a more complex one.

There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
(Douglas Adams)

At some point, this must be balanced against genetical limits and the natural limits of historical preservation, ending with a long, complex pattern which either can't be discovered or can't be changed.

But considering the time scale here, I think it's very possible that the period of these patterns won't be decided by us, but by nature.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

re: Self-consciousness (none / 0) (#54)
by piwowk on Fri Oct 20, 2000 at 10:42:47 AM EST

Here we begin to diverge. I must disagree, for the purpose of clarification and further exploration. I agree first off that when one's attention is given to a situation (let's assume through historical analysis) that one may be then inclined to change the (undesired) outcome. However, it is enough of a challenge for an individual to accomplish change in the face of their social upbringing, and I do not believe that this ability to "introspect and change" scales well to the masses.

That is to say that although the scientists may recognize a disastrous pattern, they will remain ineffectual until they have some way to convince the masses of the change at a fundamental level.

This problem is clearly illustrated today by examining "Americana". The public is easily swayed by gigantic mass-media outlets while a relatively small population recognizes that they are subjected to increasingly manipulative 'social engineering'. These 'aware' members of society seem to have little control over the growth of dictatorial capitalism, nor do they seem to even (be able to) put forth intelligent, public-serving leaders, rather than the fare of politicians we (the american public) have become used to.

To say then that the observation of a (disastrous) trend in our history will be enough to keep it from happening again is premature.

If I point out what you're about to do next, you might very well do something else.

Let me point out that generally, a rational being will only arbitrarily choose one action vice another if they appear, in the being's understanding, to offer equal benefit. On the other hand, in the case of epistemic reasoning (reasoning about knowledge) if two options seem to be equally valid it is irrational to choose one over the other, rather a rational being must suspend judgement.
I'm headed into a discussion of rationality, and it's a bit o'er my head, rather, if we head this way we should probably drop a line to Dr. John Pollock.

Keith

[ Parent ]

Social engineering (none / 0) (#56)
by Beorn on Sat Oct 21, 2000 at 05:13:27 PM EST

I'm not talking about social engineering at the hands of concerned historicians, but of what happens when you're made self-conscious of your actions. This occurs when you tell people that it's *inevitable* that they'll do something. "It happened like this the last time, and the time before that, and before that, so we *know* you're going to act like this." If this is backed by historical evidence, I believe it will have an unpredictable effect. And the more accurate the prediction, the higher the chance it won't come true at all.

The public is easily swayed by gigantic mass-media outlets while a relatively small population recognizes that they are subjected to increasingly manipulative 'social engineering'.

This is where I fundamentally differ from your views. The media reflects the opinions of the people as much as the people reflect the opinions of the media. It's a complex relationship, where no single group is in complete control of the other.

Nobody swallows everything they're told, and capitalism gives people more power than it takes away.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

Basic Statistics (2.33 / 3) (#14)
by interiot on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 02:42:39 PM EST

Doesn't basic statistics apply here? The larger the sample size, the smaller the sample error.

Since the standard deviation of a person's behavior is so high, the sample size has to be higher than you can get from observing one person. So you have to look at a large population to get a larger sample size. Presumably, a population's standard deviation would cap at some point, allowing the sample size to eventually overcome it.   ...?

Yeah, "basic" statistics... (1.50 / 2) (#15)
by trhurler on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 03:14:25 PM EST

you're missing something here: you can predict what the masses will do, but what the masses do is not what moves societies. What moves societies is the actions of a tiny few. They are motivated, they are somewhat lucky(timing, etc,) they are often well-provisioned, but not always, and most importantly, they dream of, plan, and carry out actions that have sometimes drastic consequences for the course of history. Statistics will not help you predict the actions of this tiny, constantly changing minority who actively push things forward, nor will statistics even help you figure out who those people are or will be.

And then, even predicting what the masses do is less reliable than predicting the weather a week out, which is to say, it is a pseudoscience that might some day become a feasible science.


--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
Aha, I was waiting for this. (none / 0) (#18)
by 11223 on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 03:40:31 PM EST

The actions of a very few do not drive society. If they ceased to exist the overall course of society would be the same. One man can not change the opinion of a large group of people; if there is a revolution, it is because people are discontent and ready to revolt.

--
The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.
[ Parent ]

This simply isn't true... (2.00 / 2) (#19)
by trhurler on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 04:17:26 PM EST

On the contrary, one man is always what has changed the opinions of large groups of people. I defy you to point to a case where this did not happen. Popular discontentment is a great aid to such a figure, but discontentment itself is not a vision; the workers of 1917 Russia might have been extraordinarily upset with their lot, but without the well-read and very dedicated leadership that channeled that discontentment into support for a specific plan of action(in this case, communism,) the USSR would never have existed. Yes, given extraordinary ability to predict mass action, which we do not have and probably never will have, by the way, you might predict which areas were "ripe for plucking," but you would not know what was going to happen there until you saw the emergent leadership.
Just a few minutes ago, though, another idea occurred to me. Statistics only works well for reasonably stable functions. If a function is unstable enough, then chaos theory describes it, and statistics cannot effectively predict its behavior along a given axis, much less along multiple axes. It is entirely possible that even with the averaging effects of many, many people, the (entirely theoretical) "human action function" is simply too unstable to be predictable in any meaningful sense; you might sometimes see what seems like sensible results, and then be totally blindsided by the next thing that happens. This seems very plausible given that this is the result seen by any and all polling organizations and so on when they try to prognosticate more than a few times.


--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
Whoa, whoa, whoa! (none / 0) (#21)
by 11223 on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 04:25:33 PM EST

Sure, a leadership is needed for a revolution (as in the 1917 revolution) but to say what you say implies that there is only one person who can lead it. I challenge you to defend that. Lenin wasn't the only person involved in that, and there are many leaders of a revolution (meaning any one can be replaced). Even if Lenin ceased to exist before the revolution, it's likely that Stalin would have gone straight to power. See? It's more or less all the same.

--
The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.
[ Parent ]

Great Men and History (5.00 / 1) (#22)
by weathervane on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 04:47:50 PM EST

I'm not so sure about that. Sometimes the specific decision of a single person has a great effect on history. Suppose Hitler had not decided on the final solution. Or that Hitler had never lived at all. Would the death of 6 million Jews have really been inevitable?

And if those Jews had lived, even given that the rest of WWII had went as it did, would there be an Israel?

And what if the reperations demanded of Germany after WWII had been more reasonable - say if the french delegation had been killed by a land mine or the flu. Wouldn't things have went differently then?

Imagine Bobby Kennedy had lived, or Martin Luther King, or Stalin had been assassinated. Can you really say that history would not have been meaningfully changed?

History turns on crucial moments. And sometimes those moments lie in the hands of a single person.

[ Parent ]

Actually, (none / 0) (#30)
by 11223 on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 10:09:09 AM EST

I can and I do. People are not irreplaceable. While the death of critical people may slow the tide of history, it rarely does change it significantly. Did the civil rights movement drop dead with the assination of MLK, Jr.? Did Stalin's death stop the Soviet Union?

--
The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.
[ Parent ]

Don't be ridiculous (none / 0) (#33)
by FreshView on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 11:27:23 AM EST


You're just being intentionally blind now. Do you REALLY think that 6 million jews would have died had Hitler not come to power? That was an individual hatred, and individual prejudice, an individual insanity that drove him to that, that's not "just going to happen with someone else" There is an example of 6 million lives affected by one life. I'm not saying that WW2 wouldn't have happened, or that anything else would have gone differently, but that, at least, you can lay at hitler's feet.

BTW: You're no more right than anyone else until you can offer proof, which neither side can.

[ Parent ]
Of course (none / 0) (#35)
by 11223 on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 11:58:40 AM EST

You're right - neither side can offer definite proof. That's why my article was intentionally vague and discounted the possibility of large-scale predictions. However, I still think that smaller-order predictions are possible whether or not you believe in the "Great Man" theory of history. Why? Because groups of people with no strong leader can still be predicted.

While some things (such as the Holocaust) may be inherently unpredictable, history itself may follow trends during these pockets of absence of a strong leader.

I guess I'd like to offer a correction and compramise about my original story: I really was talking about groups of people. A set of people whose actions are directly run by one man would not really be a group, and not subject to group dynamics. They would be more an extension of that one man. The overall trend lines of history may be found in those groups, rather than in the pockets where many people are directed by one man. But, unfortunately, mass propaganda (of which Hitler's regime was a master) can twist to the point of destruction the idea of group dynamics: the planting of another person's idea in your head can destroy continuity in a historical trend line. These things mean that modern leaders like Hitler, Stalin, the Chineese govt., and the American Media destroy such predictability because you cannot predict what propaganda they would use. However, after the propaganda is used, people return to predictability.

Do I make any sense?

--
The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.
[ Parent ]

hmmm...... (none / 0) (#40)
by FreshView on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 03:01:54 PM EST

Well, I think it DOES make sense, sort of. I don't know if I totally agree with you (there are other objections, already listed), but I do understand what you are saying. Even asimov didn't believe psychohistory would work on someone like The Mule (Foundation and Empire), and the Mule could easily be Stalin or Hitler.

[ Parent ]
A rather gross assumption or two... (none / 0) (#23)
by trhurler on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 05:01:02 PM EST

Sure, a leadership is needed for a revolution (as in the 1917 revolution) but to say what you say implies that there is only one person who can lead it. I challenge you to defend that. Lenin wasn't the only person involved in that, and there are many leaders of a revolution (meaning any one can be replaced). Even if Lenin ceased to exist before the revolution, it's likely that Stalin would have gone straight to power. See? It's more or less all the same.
It is entirely feasible that without Lenin and a relative handful of others, some other ideology than communism might have taken hold in Russia. Remember, the popular sentiment in Russia was against a totalitarian ruler, rather than for communism. It was the vision and actions of a small group, Lenin included, that moved the masses in the direction they took. It is not reasonable to say "Stalin would have done it." First off, Stalin was groomed by the communists - after they took power. Secondly, Stalin was not always a Soviet-style communist - even if he had led in 1917, there is no solid evidence that he would have chosen communism as Russia knew it as his rallying cry. And last, remember that half of being a great leader is being in the right place at the right time; it is very, very probable that Stalin could not have created the revolution at all, not for lack of ability, vision, or anything else except that he probably was in the wrong place, didn't know the right people, and might well not have been ready for the responsibility yet.


--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
hmmm.... Actually.... (none / 0) (#32)
by FreshView on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 11:24:44 AM EST

I agree with you, but you're missing a fact or two.

You're using an excellent example because, in fact, the "people" set up a deomocratic government after pulling down the czar, and Lenin and his friends went in 6 months later and took over the government in a bloodless coup. So communism CERTAINLY wouldn't have taken hold in russia were it not for a few people.

Individuals alway drive the masses. However, the massses always have an effect on the individual as well.

[ Parent ]
Individual/Collective = Right/Left (5.00 / 1) (#25)
by SIGFPE on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 05:34:48 PM EST

I've seen this discussion come up many times and it's very much a politically charged subject with the political Left leaning towards the idea that action is collective and the Right leaning more towards the idea of the individual hero. This isn't a uniform rule but a tendency - every culture I know of still has heroes.

So, for example, the concept of the superhero is something that took off in the States where individualism (as well as the individual) is practically worshipped. Much rhetoric from the left is directed at demolishing hero worship. I remember reading the comi^H^H^H^Hgraphic novel Watchmen many years ago. It was very much directed at undermining the idea of the superhero and it was written by a strongly left wing author. But it's very much true of many types of thought and literature.

Marxism was built on the ideas of Hegel. Hegel was a historicist which means, in effect, that he was a psychohistorian and believed that there were inevitable predictable stages that society goes through. Marx extended this to the idea of the revolution leading to an inevitable stage that succeeds capitalism.

In the US, where collective action and collective bargaining is often disparaged, you'll will find very different responses to the question of who changes history to much of the rest of the world. Much of American rhetoric is about how the individual can succeed if only they are ..... ( <- insert suitable adjective) enough.

My personal feeling is something like this: heroes (that can include anyone from war heroes to scientists) do play an important role. But in a large society heroes are inevitable so one cannot separate the hero from the mass cleanly. Einstein was pretty damn smart but relativity was lying dormant in the works of Maxwell, Lorentz and others. If Einstein hadn't appeared someone else would have eventually. But it is in the interest of a society to maintain the myth of the hero in order to encourage more heroes to appear from the mass of society. This is precisely the strategy adopted by US culture.
SIGFPE
[ Parent ]
A clarification (none / 0) (#27)
by trhurler on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 06:59:01 PM EST

I'm not a member of any political "right." Nor am I a member of the "left." I'm also not a centrist. When I say liberty, I mean it. I do not mean, as the "right" does, that I want my property rights, but am willing to sacrifice my rights to free association, speech, and so on. Nor do I mean that I am willing, in exchange for my free association, speech, and so on, to sacrifice my property rights, which is the offer made by the "left." I certainly do not mean that I will sacrifice both on the altar of compromise, as do the centrists.


--
'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

[ Parent ]
But how would you know? (none / 0) (#26)
by YellowBook on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 06:13:15 PM EST

Actually, both ideas (the Great Man theory of history) and the deterministic view are incoherent. The problem is that you are making a statement about a hypothetical (e.g. "if Einstein had not been born, relativity would have been discovered decades later if at all") that cannot be tested.

Some philosophers of science, and most conservative historians, have used this fact to argue that there can be no science of history (because you can never repeat observations). More optimistic historians and social scientists argue that it only means that social science can't predict the future. That still leaves us with the ability to make predictions about unobserved features of the past and present.

For example, if you tell me that the Orluvipadrigrnr of the Qwertyiop river valley in Outer Hrdrngrland (not a real people, so far as I know!) practice slash-and-burn horticulture, live in villages year-round, and have hereditary social inequality, I will tell you that the Orluvipadrigrnr have a unilineal kinship system. That is, I will lay a heavy bet that future observations (if they are still around), or as-of-yet-undiscovered-or-untranslated historical documents will prove me right.

I think that it is also within the bounds of social science to describe visions of the future as possible or impossible in terms of social organization, without being able to predict which of many (possibly infinitely many) situations may come to pass.



[ Parent ]
Chaos... (none / 0) (#17)
by itsbruce on Tue Oct 17, 2000 at 03:29:29 PM EST

Presumably, a population's standard deviation would cap at some point, allowing the sample size to eventually overcome it. ...?
That's not taking chaos theory into account. If it's a reliable science, then long term predictions of many systems, from weather patterns to economic cycles, is simply impossible.

--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
Asimov thought of that... (none / 0) (#29)
by Luke Scharf on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 07:39:21 AM EST

That's not taking chaos theory into account. If it's a reliable science, then long term predictions of many systems, from weather patterns to economic cycles, is simply impossible.

In the foundation books, the dangerous situation was when there was a leader who actually had control over the government. When a single person could change history, the system broke down. Lame duck leaders were all good.

In order to take care of this situation, there was the Second Foundation. Ok, you just have to read the series. :-)



[ Parent ]
No, he didn't. (none / 0) (#34)
by itsbruce on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 11:35:57 AM EST

In the foundation books, the dangerous situation was when there was a leader who actually had control over the government. When a single person could change history, the system broke down.
But Chaos science shows it would break down anyway. More so. The actions of one powerful unit, dominating a system, are far more predictable than the random interactions of a large number of units, which is what Chaos theory deals with. If Chaos theory stands up, then long range forecasts for any such system are simply impossible.

--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
Chaos isn't. (none / 0) (#38)
by Luke Scharf on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 02:19:52 PM EST

But Chaos science shows it would break down anyway. More so. The actions of one powerful unit, dominating a system, are far more predictable than the random interactions of a large number of units, which is what Chaos theory deals with. If Chaos theory stands up, then long range forecasts for any such system are simply impossible.

In the series, the second foundation is a force used to correct deviations from the plan. When a car goes down the road (without a driver) a small bump in the road will probably be enough to push it off, given enough time. If you add a driver, he/she/it corrects for these deviations before they become too great to deal with. The second foundation serves this same purpose in Asimov's series.

I dispise contrived analogies, but I think the proceeding one is the best way to describe the idea...

Also, chaos theory isn't all it's cracked up to be -- basically it says that unless you know everything with infinite precision, you can't predict the future accurately. Duh - I knew that before reading the book. And, yes, the speedometer in my car IS a strange attractor. :-)



[ Parent ]
Is too:-P (none / 0) (#39)
by itsbruce on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 02:47:21 PM EST

In the series, the second foundation is a force used to correct deviations from the plan.
And as I've said elsewhere, they would have had to brainwash a significant chunk of the galactic population for it to work. /blockquote> Also, chaos theory isn't all it's cracked up to be -- basically it says that unless you know everything with infinite precision, you can't predict the future accurately It says rather more than that. For a start, it explains why having a large sample may not eliminate error at all. And after all, Chaos theory gave rise to Complexity theory.

--

It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
Crude psychohistory already here? (2.00 / 2) (#28)
by sec on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 01:08:24 AM EST

Here's something to chew on:

Is a crude form of psychohistory already here?

After all, don't politicians use it to try to get elected?

Don't companies use it to try to get people to buy their stuff?

Don't ambitious people of all stripes use it to try to further their agendas?

Granted, it's still quite limited in scope, and is rather imperfect (can you say, "New Coke"?), but it seems to me like we've already started to walk the path, so to speak.

Somehow, I doubt that it will ever reach the level of sophistication that it attained in Asimov's books, but then, maybe that's a good thing. Do you really want something like psychohistory in the hands of corrupt politicians and greedy corporations?



Stock market (3.00 / 1) (#41)
by Nickus on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 04:51:04 PM EST

Isn't this a bit like trying to predict the stockmarket? People and emotions are involved in the pricesetting so in theory pshychohistory could be used. But then again, people value dot com companies without a product higher than some solid industry that produces a product and actually has a solid income.

Due to budget cuts, light at end of tunnel will be out. --Unknown
the power of prediction (2.50 / 2) (#43)
by khallow on Thu Oct 19, 2000 at 01:53:08 AM EST

I consider something like the Foundation series to be plausible. First, the "First Foundation" was placed in a resource poor region surrounded by hostile neighbors. It was required to hop through a bunch of hoops in order to survive. I.e., choice was restricted and hence made easier to predict. Second, you had the spooky Second Foundation steering things. Of course, Asimov added a bunch of things after the fact to make it more plausible.

The real key was the power of prediction. I.e., the myth that Hari Seldon the great psychohistorian had charted the future of humanity and that "the" Foundation was destined to rule the galaxy was the main force that kept both Foundations on the predestined path. There are weaker but still potent examples of this in real life.

The most notable (that I can think of) is the myth that the world will end (in a number of ways) and that a messiah or deliverer will come to lead the faithful to better places. The Christian version of this myth seems to have originated with the Hebrews a number of centuries B.C.E. perhaps when a number were exiled to Babylon (including the literate and ruling classes). What is significant is that this myth has survived considerably more than two millenia with all sorts of variants appearing. It continues to influence many religions and peoples.

Since the Renaissance, the myth of progress - that we are always improving and becoming "better" has been a strong force. This even with the advent of nuclear weapons and the passing of the bloodiest (so far) century in human history (note that the 14th century was more devestating relatively because of the black death and the 16th century was at least as terrible in the Americas).

These are myths that give hope in situations where that is needed. Another type of predictive myth just simplifies a complex future. At first, it sounds like a variant of the "progress" myth, but the myth of growth often is used as a way of simplifying predictions of the future. I.e., if you "know" that a particular market will "grow" then you are more willing to work to use that market.

The two best examples are the growth of the Dow Jones Industrial Average index over the past century or so and Moore's Law. The former has grown at a consistent rate of 10-12% aggregate over the past century. Most of the time, it has moved comfortingly upwards. Even the harshest declines have eventually been reversed. This provides a security that is part of the foundation of the world economy.

Moore's Law is very interesting. It was formulated in 1965 as an observation noting that the number of transistors double at a constant rate. This "law" has held for the following 35 years and appears to have a few more years left in it.

So it wouldn't be that surprising for an entity with sufficient influence, perception, and longevity to accomplish the sort of thing that takes place in the Foundation series.

Stating the obvious since 1969.

I'm afraid this has already been invented (2.33 / 3) (#44)
by streetlawyer on Thu Oct 19, 2000 at 04:58:50 AM EST

We don't really need the term "non-predictive psychohistory". The science of predicting human behaviour given an assumption of rationality, is called "economics". Gary Brecker won a Nobel prize in it a few years ago for applying economic methodology to non-economic (or at least not narrowly economic) problems.

It's quite obvious, btw, that Asimov's prototype for the psychohistorian was Karl Marx, who did in fact try to predict the development of human history in a deterministic fashion through historical materialism. With, arguably, about as much success as could reasonably be expected.

--
Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
Psychohistory vs. Chaos Theory (4.00 / 1) (#49)
by RareHeintz on Thu Oct 19, 2000 at 05:06:00 PM EST

The first thing that comes to mind is that Asimov dreamed up psychohistory before chaos theory came on the scene.

If you recall, Hari Seldon's (did I get that right?) psychohistory was able to make both broad and (relatively) fine-grained predictions about mass human behavior centuries in the future.

Chaos theory, on the other hand, posits (among other things - I'm oversimplifying drastically, I know) that there exist systems that, even given simple rules, will exhibit non-deterministic behavior (or pseudo-non-deterministic behavior) such that minute variations in initial conditions will radically affect outcomes.

I suspect that most forms of mass human behavior will be "chaotic" in the sense of the above paragraph, rather than something as predictable as Asimov pictured.

Anyone else have thoughts along these lines?

OK,
- B
--
http://www.bradheintz.com/ - updated kind of daily

Chaos patterns (none / 0) (#52)
by Beorn on Fri Oct 20, 2000 at 08:29:04 AM EST

I'm no expert on chaos theory, but wouldn't a chaotic system still reveal patterns, like in fractals?

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

Patterns and chaos (none / 0) (#55)
by RareHeintz on Fri Oct 20, 2000 at 10:52:29 AM EST

Yes, of course - write a simulation of a chaotic system sometime, and you may see "strange attractors" emerge - regions of the outcome space where outcomes tend to cluster together. The interesting bit is that outcomes that are near each other aren't necessarily caused by initial conditions that are near each other.

And, of course, human behavior has its patterns - this is why major political candidates sound alike, why a "sale" is guaranteed to boost a retailer's revenues, etc.

OK,
- B
--
http://www.bradheintz.com/ - updated kind of daily
[ Parent ]

Maybe I'm just strange... (2.00 / 1) (#50)
by goosedaemon on Thu Oct 19, 2000 at 10:57:55 PM EST

...but for some reason I find the idea that human behavior can be predicted so simply to be more than a little insulting to my sentience.

Non-Predictive Psychohistory | 56 comments (52 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
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