A few days ago I came across a blog post (which I can’t find now) criticizing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The post said that the theories in it were outdated, and went on to explain that the imaginary discipline of “psychohistory”, which the sage Hari Seldon used to predict how civilization would decline and what would be the results of his plan to ease the fall and rebuilding, had now been debunked by Chaos theory, also known as Complexity.
The blogger was probably right. I always dismissed the “psychohistory” as a sort of narrative convenience, like FTL space travel, used to make the story move along, not as something remotely likely to work in real life. Now I realize that this was probably my assumption, based on my certain knowledge that the behavior of civilizations is just not that predictable. Oh, some things are – that socialism will lead to disaster, or that democracy will eventually corrupt itself when politicians create new pools of voters for their own use – but there are many different paths that declines and rises can take, and many factors in what determines which one will happen in a particular case. So I took it for granted that of course what Hari Seldon was doing wasn’t possible in real life, and didn’t really realize that some people might think that it was, despite reading of examples.
So, Chaos theory, according to Wikipedia, states that “[s]mall differences in initial conditions…) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.”
While it is true that the modern incarnation of the theory started in the 60’s and became widely known in the 90’s, the above is of course a basic premise of conservative philosophy, going back at least as far as Edmund Burke, probably further. So, science guys, nice to see that you’ve finally caught up to us fuddy-duddies smoking cigars and sipping brandy in our gentlemen’s clubs, writing indignant letters to the Times.