Human behavior in bulk is far more predictable than we like to imagine

By | January 9, 2022

Ian Stewart writes:

In Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation (1951), the mathematician Hari Seldon forecasts the collapse of the Galactic Empire using psychohistory: a calculus of the patterns that occur in the reaction of the mass of humanity to social and economic events. Initially put on trial for treason, on the grounds that his prediction encourages said collapse, Seldon is permitted to set up a research group on a secluded planet. There, he investigates how to minimise the destruction and reduce the subsequent period of anarchy from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000.

Asimov knew that predicting large-scale political events over periods of millennia is not really plausible. But we all do suspend this disbelief when reading fiction. No Jane Austen fan gets upset to be told that Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy didn’t actually exist. Asimov was smart enough to know that such forecasting, however accurate it might be, is vulnerable to any large disturbance that hasn’t been anticipated, not even in principle. He also understood that readers who happily swallowed psychohistory would realise the same thing. In the second volume of the series, just such a ‘black swan’ event derails Seldon’s plans. However, Seldon has a contingency plan, one that the series later reveals also brings some surprises.

Asimov’s Foundation series is notable for concentrating on the political machinations of the key groups, instead of churning out page upon page of space battles between vast fleets armed to the teeth. The protagonists receive regular reports of such battles, but the description is far from a Hollywood treatment. The plot, as Asimov himself stated, is modelled on Edward Gibbon’s book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89), and a masterclass in planning on an epic scale for uncertainty. Every senior minister and civil servant should be obliged to read it.

Psychohistory, a fictional method for predicting humanity’s future, takes a hypothetical mathematical technique to extremes, for dramatic effect. But, for less ambitious tasks, we use the basic idea every day; for example, when a supermarket manager estimates how many bags of flour to put on the shelves, or an architect assesses the likely size of a meeting room when designing a building. The character of Seldon was to some extent inspired by Adolphe Quételet, one of the first to apply mathematics to human behaviour. Quételet was born in 1796 in Ghent in the Low Countries, now Belgium. Today’s obsessions with the promises and dangers of ‘big data’ and artificial intelligence are direct descendants of Quételet’s brainchild. He didn’t call it psychohistory, of course. He called it social physics. [Continue reading…]

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