Historian Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut, has assumed the role of the world's biggest bummer with his recent prediction that widespread violence will erupt worldwide sometime around the year 2020, as profiled in this recent feature in Nature. What has many people worried is that he's backing up this premonition with a mathematical formula, known as cliodynamics.
Turchin is credited with coining the term cliodynamics, which is the study of historical mathematical data like population figures and global economic performance to identify patterns of similar behavior. Turchin's studies point to a cycle in which society at large becomes engulfed in widespread violence every 50 years.
The current pattern dates back at least to 1870, when economic disparity in the U.S. led to urban violence, and follows the 50-year cycle to the anti-Communist fervor and race riots around 1920, followed by the political assassinations, terrorist attacks and domestic violence in 1970, Turchin told Nature. By that logic, Turchin believes we should circle the year 2020 on our calendars as the year when we start locking our doors.
“I hope it won't be as bad as 1870,” he told Nature.
Turchin operates a website devoted to spreading awareness of cliodynamics, which can be found here. Separately, in a page titled "Why do we need mathematical history?" an appeal for the increased use of numerical patterns and formulas to attempt to answer the Turchin's hypothesis that history follows patterns is made, and quite compellingly:
Mathematics is not just about quantities (it includes such fields as mathematical logic, abstract algebra, and topology). However, if we are interested in understanding the dynamics of such historical processes as population change, territorial expansion/contraction, and the spread of religions, we must get involved with numbers and rates. Furthermore, a “naked” human mind, unaided by mathematical formalism and computers, is a poor tool for predicting dynamical processes characterized by nonlinear feedbacks, or grasping such complex behaviors as mathematical chaos.
Without mathematics (understood broadly) we are doomed to make vague statements and to arrive at wrong conclusions. How can we test theoretical predictions with data, if we are not even sure that the “prediction” in fact follows from the theory’s premises?
This page also points to similar practices by other historians, namely "the work of the Nobel laureate Robert Fogel and colleagues on the economic feasibility of slavery in the Antebellum United States."
"We need more such studies, and not just in the field of economic history," the page adds (it shows no author but is linked from Turchin's homepage).
Of course, the theory has its opponents, as the Nature article points out. But if Turchin's numbers end up being right, is it too late to do anything about it?