“The Mad Prophet of Connecticut”

Graeme Wood penned a “long read” about cliodynamics, me, and the Age of Discord in which we are currently find ourselves. Graeme is a very intelligent journalist and his explanations of cliodynamics and structural-demographic mechanisms that bring about state breakdown are quite good. The Atlantic went through a thorough fact-checking process (unusual in these times of online media with limited resources to check facts) and I have no argument with the factual foundations of the Graeme’s article.

But Graeme is a journalist and it’s his job to present facts in ways that sell journal copy (or subscription). I am a scientist, and I can’t help but disagree with several angles through which Graeme views what I do; with the “spin” that he gave to the story. Certainly I don’t agree with his portrayal of me as a “prophet” (worse “the mad prophet”). He used this characterization not in the article (thank goodness), but in his Tweet about it.

But I am not a prophet, never claimed to be one, and in fact I had specifically written about why I eschew prophecy in this blog post. And I am on record criticizing other “prophets”. As I am a scientist, I use scientific prediction as a tool to test theories, in other words to discover which theories are true and which are not (for an example see here).

Neither am I a writer of “megahistory”. I enjoy books by Jared Diamond and Yuval Harari, because they generate interesting generalizations that can serve as testable hypotheses. But these authors stop at that. Where I take over is translating their verbal ideas into dynamical models, extracting quantitative predictions from them, and then testing them with historical data. Although I have proposed my own “grand theories,” my main job is slaying theories, not multiplying them.

The other big problem with how Graeme portrays me is that I come through as an arrogant jerk. I cringed in a number of places as I read his article. Yes, I propose a fairly ambitious program of testing theories about historical processes by translating them into explicit models and then testing model predictions with large datasets. But no, I don’t think of myself as a Hari Seldon. In fact, the fictional Hari Seldon had no appreciation of nonlinear dynamics and mathematical chaos (because Asimov wrote the stories before the discovery of chaos). And cliodynamics is not psychohistory.

But the worst misconception that readers will get from reading Graeme’s article is about my views of History. “Terms of surrender,” really! This is entirely on Graeme’s conscience. My view of History and historians (and archaeologists, religion scholars) is appreciative and respectful. I have written on many occasions that cliodynamics needs history. Ten years ago, a group of us launched the Seshat project, whose success critically depends on collaboration with expert historians and archaeologists. Read this introduction to Seshat to see what I and my colleagues really think about history.

Historians who read this Atlantic article will be — rightfully — incensed (thanks, Graeme). But I urge them to read more about the Seshat project to find out about our goals and approaches. Far from abolishing History (or forcing it to “surrender”) we want History to flourish. We need academic historians to use their expertise to continue amassing the knowledge about different aspects of past societies. We rely on historians and archaeologists to interpret complex and nuanced historical evidence, before it can be translated into data for analysis. Our knowledge about past societies also has many gaps and a lot of uncertainty — this uncertainty needs to be reflected in data so our analytical results represent not only what we think we know, but also the limits of our knowledge.

History can exist (and has existed) without Cliodynamics, but Cliodynamics cannot exist without History. And my hope is that Cliodynamics will eventually pay its debt to History by showing that studying past societies is not just an academic endeavor — it can help us understand, among other things, our current Age of Discord, how we got into it, and what we can do to navigate the turbulent waters ahead.

Posted by Contributor