On Testing Theories in History

Peter Turchin

1 Comment

Join 36.9K other subscribers
Noah Smith wrote a post on his Substack, On the wisdom of historians, to which a historian Bret Devereaux wrote a rebuttal, On the wisdom of Noah Smith. Yesterday I wrote a Twitter thread on this debate, which turned out to be fairly long, so I decided that it’s worth posting a version of it on my own blog. What follows is a lightly edited “unroll” of my thread.

In his response to Noah Bret takes a swipe in passing at my work: Image

It is not clear to what he refers (“effort to find support for this hypothesis in the ancient world”), as my my main effort for empirically testing this hypotheses has centered on the US from 1789 to the present, with a huge emphasis on the contemporary America (from the 1970s on). Perhaps America in the late 20 century is an ancient country? The main source is Ages of Discord.

Cliodynamics colleagues and myself have also applied theory to other contemporary societies, as well as many historical ones. So I would say that the elite overproduction thesis has fared quite well in empirical tests, and dismissing it in passing is not good scholarship.
At the same time, there is much in Bret’s blog post that I agree with. There are multiple epistemologies, and I quite appreciate what historians do, and I am very supportive of History as a mature discipline. My work is often misinterpreted as an attack on History, but nothing could be further from truth. See here:

I also agree with Bret about his critique of Max Roser’s “data” which is indeed “not charting global deaths in conflict, but rather in charting the rate at which evidence for battles is preserved over time”


However, this doesn’t mean that such data are useless; to properly extract insights from them we need to include the measurement process in the analysis. This takes thought and work, but is a better alternative than just throwing up arms in defeat.

Returning to the main theme of Noah’s post, I see value in both the work that historians do (which is not science) and the need to empirically test theories (which is science). The latter is the task for Cliodynamics. There is no need for the same researchers do both.
I also want to return to my first encounter with Bret’s critique, which was of the Seshat project’s first attempt to test the Big God theory. That was admittedly flawed, but we didn’t give up — we redesigned data collection, gathered more and better buttressed data, and used better analysis methods. The result was published in June in a special feature in Religion, Brain, and Behavior, together with 7 commentaries, our response, and a retrospective:

I would be interested in Bret’s comment/critique of that. I think that this effort, although by no means the final word, moves us a long way towards testing (and rejecting) evolutionary theories about the role of religion in the rise of complex human societies.

Finally, Noah calls for empirical tests of theories in history. I’d like to attract his attention (and everybody else) to #Seshat project’s massive effort to test 17 different theories about the evolution of social complexity across the past 10,000 years:

Notify of
1 Comment
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Hi Peter, 

If I may, I would propose in the beautiful idea of Cliodynamics, a look at the history from a Schismogenetic point of view too. Schismogenesis, from Gregory Bateson. What it’s look to me is that the historical pattern is the behaviour binomial authority-submission. Once the binomial is setted, there will be a gradually change of sign, from submission towards authority. With sometimes who was the authority (and change to submission), trying to get the position back and sometimes completely disappear from history. But all, as you clearly mention it, in the ~ 10% of the potentially positioned towards the power. 
As an example of the start of a Schismogenesis is the open letter of Emile Zola in the Dreyfus matter, when he change not even the role of the intellectual as the one that has to take care of the helpless outsiders, but change the meaning of the word intellectual: from the one which uses the intellect (noun), opposite to manual, to a thinker with a high degree of understanding (adjective). The Schismogenesis being the shy start of taking care of an individual and moving towards the engaged intellectual taking care of the masses and now the welfare state, aiming some sort of egalitarian future. This being the way that, in a democratically frame, the power was taken from the nobility and moved towards the new class of intellectuals. 
So for me it’s rather the setting of the complementary Schismogenesis that will give us the future events. Reversing the binomial authority-submission behaviour overnight and without opposition from the authority, will unbalance and not create equality, but upside-down the binomial. 
I don’t know if I made myself clear, there is a lot of a lot to discuss about this.

  1. Home
  2. /
  3. Cliodynamica
  4. /
  5. Regular Posts
  6. /
  7. On Testing Theories in...

© Peter Turchin 2023 All rights reserved

Privacy Policy