Some Brief Thoughts on Cliodynamics and Big History

As an electrical engineer (in the subfields of information theory and molecular biology), I have to say that I’m very intrigued by the articles (1, 2) that Marc Parry has written for the Chronicle in the past few weeks on the subjects of quantitative history, cliometrics/cliodynamics, or what I might term Big History (following the tradition of David Christian; I was initially turned onto it by a Chronicle article). I have lately coincidentally been reading Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” as well as Daniel Kanheman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. (I’ll also mention that I’m a general fan of the work of Jared Diamond and Matt Ridley who impinge on these topics as well.)

I’m sure that all of these researchers are onto something in terms of trying to better quantify our historical perspectives in using science and applying it to history. I think the process might be likened to the ways in which methods of computed tomography, P.E.T., S.P.E.C.T, et al have been applied to the areas of psychology since the late 70’s to create the field of cognitive neuropsychology which has now grown much more closely to the more concrete areas of neurophysiology within biology, chemistry, and medicine.

I can see both sides of the “controversy” which is mentioned in the articles as well as in the comments in all of the articles, but I have a very visceral gut feeling that they can be ironed out over time. I say this as areas like behavioral economics which have grown out of the psychology work mentioned in Kahneman’s book become more concrete. The data available for application with relation to history will be much more useful as people’s psychological interactions with their surroundings are better understood. People in general are exceptionally poor at extrapolating statistical knowledge of the world around them and putting it into the best use. For example, although one can make an accurate calculation of the time-value of money, most people who know it won’t use it to determine the best way of taking a large lottery payout (either a lump sum or paid out over time), and this doesn’t even take into consideration the phenomenal odds against even playing the lottery in the first place. Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2 structures in conjunction with more historical data and analysis of the two in conjunction may be a far better method than either that of historians’ previous attempts or that of the quantitative method separately. Put into mathematical terms, it’s much more likely the case that human interactions follow a smaller local min-max curve/equation on a limited horizon, but do not necessarily follow the global maxima and minima that are currently being viewed at the larger scales of big history. We’ll need to do a better job of sifting through the data and coming up with a better interpretation of it on the correct historical scales for the problem at hand.

Perhaps, by analogy, we might look at this disconnect between the two camps as the same type of disconnect seen in the areas of Newtonian and quantum physics. They’re both interlinked somehow and do a generally good job of providing accurate viewpoints and predictions of their own sub-areas, but haven’t been put together coherently into one larger catch-all theory encompassing both. Without the encouragement of work in the quantitative areas of history, we’ll certainly be at a great disadvantage.

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