“Physics envy” is one name for it. It’s the epithet that people in the physical sciences sometimes mockingly lob at research in other fields that, they think, tries to hide its lack of conceptual or empirical rigor behind gratuitous equations and vague metrics. Psychology, sociology, even areas of biology and economics get tagged with it. But history? Recently, there hasn’t been much reason to accuse historians of physics envy.

Yet Peter Turchin, a mathematical ecologist turned history analyst at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, is now stirring up exactly those kinds of criticisms — even from other historians. He is a founder and leading proponent for a young field of quantitative historical study called cliodynamics (after Clio, the Greek muse of history). His new science aims to identify not just trends or patterns in human affairs but actual laws that may govern the stability of societies over time.

That many historians regard the search for such laws to be hopeless doesn’t seem to discourage Turchin. He and his colleagues already see evidence for principles that explain past patterns and that just might also predict future trends.

Read more at SmartPlanet.

Published On: August 7, 2012

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