Who is Peter Turchin, the Nostradamus of history, who predicted ten years ago that 2020 would be cruel?

Who is Peter Turchin, the Nostradamus of history, who predicted ten years ago that 2020 would be cruel?

Some time ago, Peter Turchin predicted that 2020 would be a terrible year. The Russian-born American university student expressed it emptyly and irritably in a 2010 article in the journal Nature, now considered one of the contemporary pinnacles of predictive history. The facts, of course, have proven the motive of this ominous professional with a scientific alibi.

But perhaps the most worrying thing at this point is that Turchin’s forecast is a forecast with an expiration date that is not limited to December 31. Not only did he say that 2020 would bring Western societies to the brink of collapse, but he still very likely sees that in 2021 they will take an (irreversible?) step and fall into groundlessness.

how they listen The dark year of the pandemic, our man believes, will be followed by a period of growing political instability which, particularly in the case of the United States, could lead to violent systemic collapse. On his Twitter profile, Turchin posted a message dated February 12, 2017, in which he assured that the country was in the midst of an acute systemic crisis that could lead to civil unrest. As he wrote on his website, the odds of such a disaster occurring in the next few years seem even greater now than when he tweeted. Recent events like Joe Biden’s run for president last November change nothing for him, the background convulsive swelling that leads to instability and potential disaster remains clean.

This is how Nostradamus spends them based on mathematical models of history. The man whose outlandish predictions were met with contemptuous bewilderment by the scientific community. Until they start being honest.

The law of silence?

The most ardent and enthusiastic followers of his social networks and his website are convinced that he is a dissident who spreads uncomfortable truths and that the authorities want to silence. Sincerity is much more vulgar. There is no government conspiracy against Peter Turchin. Nobody wants to silence this professor of cultural progress and cultural history at the University of Connecticut, who was born in the former Soviet Union in 1957.

On the contrary: Turchin already has several decades of intense but dark intellectual career behind him and has just become a media destination. When it became clear in April of this year that 2020 was going to be a horror year, the press started paying attention to him. At first they did it in the presence of more sensationalist media, which treated it more as a mere curiosity, a fair role model. Eventually, the serious press decided to pay a little more attention to this visionary with Cassandra syndrome. Even one of his staunch critics, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, finally admitted that, controversial as some of his claims may be, Turchin has a strong track record: after all, there is a method behind his extravagance. (resulting). .

Back to the future

Telamon writer Graeme Wood interviewed Turchin in mid-November. In the detailed profile in the interview, he describes him as an eccentric but down-to-earth guy, a former biologist who was trained in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and spent nearly 30 years studying parasitic species such as the dung beetle. Already in full swing, having resolved, as he himself admits, “all the interesting unknowns” in his field of study, he decided to devote himself to his other great passion: history.

Turchin entered the field of social science like an octopus in a china shop. He approached them from a whole new perspective, which he called “cliodynamics”. He insists his work is not based on hunches or guesswork, but on a sophisticated mathematical dummy that takes data from the past 10,000 years of human history and subjects it to in-depth quantitative and qualitative exploration. in an attempt to identify significant patterns. From these diagrams, again according to Turchin, it is possible to identify “general principles which explain the functioning and progress of historical societies over time”.

He thinks he has detected at least one of these trends: every 50 years there is a long period of political instability and violence in the United States. This happened in the 1870s, 1920s, and 1970s, and the historical series could be rolled back a century earlier to still cover 1770s and 1820s if it is accepted that the last of those decades was a period of stability. economic but still political unrest. and ideological. Already in 2010, the third year of the Contemporary Great Recession, Turchin was convinced that the pattern was repeating itself, that the tectonic plates of social unrest were beginning to shift, and that major catastrophe would strike again around 2020.

As he explained in an interview with Vice a few months ago, his thing, however controversial, is applied science, not astrology, palmistry or any other modality of magical thinking: events of 2020 didn’t prove him right, but and the theory he’s been working on since 2001. “Of course,” The Thinker acknowledged, “nobody can be completely sure what’s going to happen. be absolutely predicted.

The twilight of the great empires

The predictive story generally doesn’t get very good press. It was popular until the middle of the 20th century, without ever breaking the stigma of being a speculative and subordinate discipline, closer to philosophical debate or the simplest applied astrology than to certain knowledge. In Spain, it was notoriously practiced by Alexandre Deulofeu (1903-1978), pharmacist, politician, philosopher and scholar from Figueres, an illustrious student of the pioneers of biohistory such as Oswald Spengler or Arnold J. Toynbee. Deulofeu is generally credited with having confirmed, from a mathematical model of his own elaboration, that civilizations are like living organisms, which are born, reproduce and die out in cycles of 1,700 to 5,100 springs.

This irrefutable (precarious) environment allowed him to make predictions such as the collapse of the Soviet Union before the end of the 20th century, the end of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or the emergence of China as a new power. world in the first third of the 20th century. . 21st century He also predicted the dissolution of the Castilian “empire” in 2029. Supporters of Deulofeu, including his grandson, historian Juli Gutiérrez, point to the great intellectual achievement that later theoretically corroborated these predictions with the facts, ignoring perhaps more indulgent than selfishness, that this Renaissance man made several such predictions throughout his life, many of which were wrong.

Far more impressive is the record of another sympathetic historian of future predictions, Allan Lichtman, the veteran University of Washington DC professor who has been predicting the identity of America’s election champion since 1984. Lichtman insists that his method is to “ignore polls, election messages, journalistic columns, academic speculations and, in general, all conventional and unsubstantiated methods of preparing election forecasts.” It focuses on 13 essential interpretations that have to do with aspects such as the economic situation, successes in foreign policy or the charisma of the candidates. Statistical computing experts like Nate Silver constantly insist that Lichtman’s method, ingenious as it is, has a dubious proportionate technical cushion. But their results confirm it.

Although his analytical perspective seems much more coherent on paper than that of Deulofeu and Lichtman, the truth is that Turchin is not even a true historian. Although he stopped studying ecosystems in the late 1990s, he is still part of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology departments, but still collaborates with the Anthropology and Mathematics departments. Orthodox historians in his college prefer to stay away from him, convinced that they are not in the same federation and probably do not even play the same series. According to Graeme Wood, the 100 technical articles and six books (none of which have been translated into Spanish) that Turchin has written over the past 20 years fit better into what we now call the “big story”. , a discipline that has become popular in recent years. years by great popularizers such as Steve Pinker, Noah Yuval Harari or Jared Diamond.

What most of these authors have overall, as Graeme Wood explains, is that they come from academic disciplines outside of history, which allows them to approach this field of knowledge “without prejudice, with a fresher perspective but still with its limitations. he does not use the analytical tools of orthodox historians because they are foreign to his intellectual career. His works are popular because, in Harari’s view, “they try to make sense of what seems to make no sense, thereby quenching the thirst for coherent stories that all human beings have.” The Sapiens series, Harari’s bestseller, raises complex questions about the meaning of progress and human experience and exploration to provide answers.

In Wood’s view, what distinguishes Turchin from Harari and Diamond is that “he claims to be looking close to the future rather than describing and interpreting human history as a whole.” Turchin himself has admitted on occasion that the model he wishes to compete with is not a student but a fictional creature: Hari Seldon, the mathematical wizard created by Isaac Asimov in his speculative novel series The Foundation. Gifted with astonishing computing power and unparalleled analytical precision, Seldon could predict the rise and fall of empires as if they were complex living organisms governed 100% by the laws of biological progress. According to Wood, this is the kind of knowledge and certainty that Turchin explores. If his method works, if this one man possesses the truly antithetical formula for predicting future events with a small margin of error, five springs await us, who knows if a whole period full of upheaval and catastrophe.

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