The quest to identify and explain global trends and cycles across politics, economics, and society is as vibrant today as it ever has been. Scholars who seek such revelations are interested in questions such as: What explains the success and failure of nation-states and empires? What explains the emergence of the nation-state itself? Is human violence on the decline, or can we identify cycles of violence that recur through time? Recent decades have produced important and interesting scholarship that is increasingly intrepid both in the scope of analysis and the rigor of methods. Noteworthy examples of such work are Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (see here for our review of these ideas), and Peter Turchin’s work on cliodynamics.
Aside from being philosophically interesting, if reliable and valid explanations to questions such as these can be identified, perhaps we can make the next logical step from explanation and begin to generate predictions about the future that can be useful to policy makers today. Seems easy, right? Not quite. First, and needless to say, academics can be wrong. Human systems, like most biological systems, are incredibly complex and difficult to model. Second, even seemingly accurate historical explanations may still leave us shortchanged when seeking to draw inferences regarding the future. Third, there is a danger that arguments regarding such major historical and evolutionary change can be either misunderstood – and more dangerously – misapplied in the realm of policy. Mitt Romney, for example, recently cited Jared Diamond’s work in support of remarks that apparently tie Israel’s economic success (relative to that of Palestine) to “culture” and providence. Jared Diamond’s response in the New York Times clarified that his arguments had been misunderstood by Romney. ETVOL does not take a position on political candidates, and our example here is merely illustrative of how easy it can be to make simple mistakes regarding models of complex systems.
In the spirit of scientific openness in the context of a marketplace of ideas, we urge our readers to familiarize themselves directly with these debates so as to become responsible consumers of knowledge. Such openness and responsibility is perhaps most important in an election year.