Can history be used to predict the future? Some experts say it can

Is the war in Ukraine proof that history is repeating itself?

Countless commentators have drawn comparisons to World War II, the Red Army, and even Hitler.

The comparisons increased when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy invoked the spirit of Churchill and the Blitz when he addressed the British House of Commons in March, while Vladimir Putin spoke of the “denazification” of Ukraine as a sort of historical Russian mission.

Yet the Ukrainian conflict might as well be read as a stark reminder that historical comparisons aren’t always helpful when looking to the future.

Despite his brutal nature, Putin is not Stalin, Ukraine is not ruled by Nazis, and today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union.

Disputes among scholars about the predictive ability of history are as cyclical as the so-called history circles they debate.

But what do these debates tell us about the role and nature of historical archives?

A new theory of the past and the future

Russian-American scholar Peter Turchin is the modern face of the circular history debate.

He has spent the past two decades arguing that history can have a predictive quality and should be reinvented as a science, not just a discipline.

He calls his approach Cliodynamics, and a fundamental premise is that violent events can be anticipated. They occur when structural conditions within a society mirror those of previous periods of violence.

“Think of a forest in which dead wood has accumulated over many years,” Dr. Turchin wrote in an explanatory piece for The Talk.

“We don’t know what will start the fire – it could be a lightning strike during a storm, or a carelessly thrown match – but sooner or later such a rushing spark will happen, and there will be a huge conflagration.”

Turchin’s theories are influenced by the 18th century economist Thomas Malthus and his idea of ​​the “cycle of misery”, which held that mankind was “doomed to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery”.

The novelty of Turchin’s approach is that he uses advanced mathematical tools and in-depth data analysis to make projections.

His work is based on American data and he claims to have followed a cyclical pattern of political violence in that country dating back to the 1800s.

Such cycles, he argues, are the result of recurring “structural demographic” conditions, including long-term wage stagnation and the concentration of wealth.

Added to this is what he calls “the overproduction of the elites”. This is basically where a highly educated class within society becomes disillusioned and rebels against the establishment.

Professor Turchin points to the rise of the Trumpian anti-establishment movement in the United States as evidence for his theory. He also predicted in 2010 that the latest round of violence in the United States peak in 2020 and around 2020.

“We are now in the second age of discord,” he said in a interview with Vice.

“Such turbulent times continue until the structural trends driving them are reversed.

Attractive but selective

Ben Chugg, a researcher at Stanford University, believes that Cliodynamics, although based on centuries-old theories, appeals to the sensibilities of the modern world.

“A lot of Cliodynamics is just taking modern mathematical tools and trying to better understand history and historical events,” he told ABC RN’s Future Tense.

That way, he says, it can provide “new” information. But he is cautious about the idea of ​​history as predictive science.

Ben Chugg, a researcher at Stanford University, urges caution when it comes to using history to predict the future.(Provided)

“It’s very easy to look at a set of historical data and spot trends. But, of course, these are not universal laws, these are not physical laws.

There is also the problem of confirmation bias – inadvertently looking for patterns that confirm pre-existing beliefs.

“The irony here is that the very people who are most interested in predicting the future from history are ignoring the fact that everyone who has ever tried it has ultimately failed,” Ms. Chugg.

Live at the turn

Like Cliodynamics, another popular concept – called “the hinge of history” – also attempts to reframe our understanding of the historical process and the primacy of humans in the world.

The central idea is that we currently live in a time like no other: one where human beings now have ultimate control over the fate of the Earth.

The term “hinge of history” was coined by British philosopher Derek Parfit in his 2011 book On what matters.

He wrote: “Given the scientific and technological discoveries of the last two centuries, the world has never changed so quickly.

“We will soon have even greater powers to transform not only our environment, but ourselves and our successors.”

Google the term “pivotal history” and you’ll find that it’s quickly becoming a popular point of discussion and debate for everyone from the United Nations to the online student magazine. GENEWS.

Former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison even used it in a recent speech at the Lowy Institute on the rise of Chinese militarism.

A matter of perspective

For Luke Kemp of Oxford University’s Center of Existential Risk, the ideas behind the story’s hinge are compelling, given heightened fears around climate change, nuclear weapons and advanced AI.

close up of young man with dark hair
Dr. Kemp fears that the idea that this moment is the most important in history could be used to justify heinous actions. (Provided: Center for Existential Risk, University of Oxford)

But, he says, it’s a theory that’s nearly impossible to prove.

“We have good scientific reasons for trying to estimate existential risk, but it is somewhat prideful and arrogant to believe that we can know that the risks of this century will be higher than the risks of the next century or the next century. ‘after.”

Dr Kemp says the hypothesis also does not fully consider past developments when assessing today’s threats.

“So you could say that this century has a disproportionate influence, but a lot of the reason it’s so important is because of the history that preceded it.”

He fears the theory has a dark side that could lead to greater political intolerance.

This fear was echoed by bioethicist Peter Singer in an opinion piece for Project Syndicate.

End of 2021 he wrote“Viewing current problems through the prism of existential risks to our species can reduce those problems to almost nothing, while justifying almost anything that increases our chances of surviving long enough to spread beyond Earth.

“Marx’s vision of communism as the goal of all human history provided Lenin and Stalin with justification for their crimes.

“I am not suggesting that current proponents of the idea of ​​the hinge of history would accept atrocities,” he added.

“But then, Marx too never considered that a regime governing in his name would terrorize his people.”

The value of historical debate

German philosopher Georg Hegel was skeptical of the essential value of history as a tool for future knowledge and decision-making.

In his famous lectures on the philosophy of history, he wrote: “What experience and history teach is that nations and governments have never learned from history nor acted in based on the lessons they could have drawn from it.

In his recently published book The Ever-Changing Past: All History is Revisionist History, American historian James Banner argues for an ongoing debate about history and its purpose.

He rejects the conservative notion that there is some form of objective history, arguing that the historical record is fluid and rightly shaped over time by new evidence, new understanding, and new theories.

He believes that history plays an important role in our society, but it has its limits.

“It helps us gain knowledge and, if we’re lucky, gain some wisdom about human life, about ourselves, and about others. But it has no predictive quality.”

That said, the only prediction he is willing to make as a historian is that disputes between and about his profession will have a long future.

Disputes over historical facts and practices are as old, he says, as history itself.

“People argue about the present – we disagree about the present – what would make people think people in the past didn’t argue the same way and you can stop people from arguing about it today?”

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