Psychohistory is an interdisciplinary science that combines sociology and mathematics with the aim of predicting future events in major societies. The theory is inspired by the emergence of gases from billions of atoms, and similar quantities are taken into account when the first axiom speaks of sufficiently large populations. The real world would face challenges related to three main areas: scale, the limits of current knowledge, and ethics. We cannot mathematically describe the mechanisms underlying changes in societies with the level of precision required. We just don’t understand them well enough. Again.
Combines insights from data science, humanities and social sciences. Likes reflection, science fiction and design.
Foundation Series, written by Isaac Asimov, is about a world where the future of humanity can be predicted through an interdisciplinary science called psychohistory. Read on and learn more about psychohistory, its connection to data science, and what it means for the future of humanity.
Disclaimer: I will only focus on the concept of psychohistory and ignore any specific events in the books to avoid spoilers.
Foundation and Psychohistory Series
Wouldn’t it be fun to know what will happen to humans in 300 years? For example, will people play video games more or less? Will toilet paper production be more optimized for contingencies?
Taken from https://tenor.com/bhLfr.gif
Foundation is a series of science fiction books and Psychohistory is science fiction in the Foundation universe. It combines sociology and mathematics with the aim of predicting future events in large societies. The series spans hundreds of years and the idea of psychohistory develops further during this time. Without spoiling anything, let’s review all the axioms of psychohistory.
- The populations whose behavior has been modeled must be large enough
- The population must remain ignorant of the results of the application of psychohistorical analyzes because if it is aware, the group changes its behavior
- There would be no fundamental change in society
- Human reactions to stimuli would remain constant
- Humans are the galaxy’s only sentient intelligence
Depending on your training, you may already have acquired some craziness. What is a sufficiently large population? What if you predicted something terrible? Wouldn’t it be better to share such a prediction? In the real world, psychohistory would face challenges related to three main areas: scale, the limits of current knowledge, and ethics.
The issue of scale
There are physical challenges regarding the number of members of the population and, of course, the enormous time scale. The theory is inspired by the emergence of gases from billions of atoms, and similar quantities are taken into account when the first axiom speaks of sufficiently large populations. As you might guess, one Earth can’t hold that many people and we don’t have the technology to travel and live on different planets.
Limits of current knowledge
We cannot mathematically describe the mechanisms underlying changes in societies with the level of precision required. We just don’t understand them well enough. Some will say that we can never understand societal models enough because, unlike physical systems, social sciences have to deal with more uncertainty. However, some of this uncertainty could be understood with relevant data.
Imagine a future where we spend a lot of time in a virtual environment and where our activity could be tracked. Wait, you don’t have to imagine it. How much does Google or Facebook know about you?
It is also a matter of respecting the privacy of consumers. Do we want the data to be collected? This brings us to the last issue.
Hiding information about hazards seems unethical, but there may be a situation where taking such a risk is justified. For example, when you need to collect evidence to prove wrongdoing.
Also, I think it’s unlikely that a future iteration of our society will allow a group of scientists to cover up dire predictions and deceive the public.
Science is synonymous with openness.
Also, you can make a prediction and share it with people, but they have to believe it to change their behavior. How many people still doubt the existence of climate change or even Covid-19?
Is psychohistory possible?
Depending on who you ask, you can get very different answers. However, considering the points raised above, the short answer is no; as described by Asimov, psychohistory is not possible.
Can we at least predict events in societies over the next 50 or 100 years? Although many social scientists would disagree, I think the answer is “Maybe”. The amount of relevant data is increasing every day.
So does our knowledge of societies, their development and the patterns of their evolution. For example, weather forecasts have not always been as accurate as they are today. Better models and data integration have led to the current success. With targeted efforts, the social sciences could try to do the same.
Data science vs psychohistory
As all of the original Foundation stories were written when computers weren’t in everyone’s pocket, exactly how the psychostory works isn’t obvious. For purposes of comparison, I will assume that psychohistory is a combination of mathematical modeling and social science research currently unavailable.
Mathematical modeling involves developing a theoretical understanding of how something works and then translating it into mathematical formulation.
This then allows you to simulate different scenarios and likely outcomes. We often call it prescriptive modeling because we can determine, ie prescribe, the best course of action without having to cycle through all the options. This approach is often used in decision science and has been widely used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
My favorite definition of data science says that “Data science is the discipline of making data useful”. Data science is an umbrella term and if psychohistory were real, it would probably fall under that umbrella.
So to conclude, predicting societal events for hundreds of years to come is probably out of the question. Still, predicting societal events spanning one or two lifetimes – well, that’s not too crazy. However, the question will not be whether we can do it, but if and when we should.
Plus, if anyone’s interested, there’s now a TV adaptation of the Foundation series!