Wednesday, 5 March 2003

Asimov's Psychohistory: Political science in another guise?

(Prompted by Hit & Run's linkage to the Science Fiction Book Club's list of “The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years”, with the Foundation trilogy making it in at #2.)

Since I spent much of the weekend laid up with the seemingly annual recurrence of my sprained ankle, I finally got around to doing some light reading. My reading choice was the three books of Asimov's original Foundation trilogy: Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. Much of the plot of the series revolves around the invention and seeming perfection of “psychohistory” by Hari Seldon, and the consequences thereof. From the Wikipedia:

Psychohistory was also the name of a fictional science in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy universe, which combined history, psychology and mathematical statistics to create a (nearly) exact science of the behavior of very large populations of people, such as the Galactic Empire. Asimov used the analogy of a gas, where whilst the motion of a single molecule is very difficult to predict, the mass behavior of the gas can be predicted to a high level of accuracy. This concept he then applied to the population of the fictional Galactic Empire, which numbered in the quadrillions. The character responsible for the science's creation, Hari Seldon, established two postulates: that the population whose behaviour was modeled should be sufficiently large and that they should remain in ignorance of the results of the application of psychohistorical analyses.

In some ways (although Asimov came up with the concept before the behavioral revolution in political science, beginning with Voting and The American Voter), “psychohistory” sounds a lot like the work of the quantitative parts of the discipline, particularly in the fields of mass political behavior and international relations, albeit much evolved and with a predictive rather than an explanatory emphasis (we can reasonably predict short-term political phenomena, within limits, but there's nothing in the contemporary political science toolbox that would be able to predict how long the United States will persist, for example).

So it's fun to think about some of the parallels, although I'm not convinced it would be a good thing for the universe to have Jacob T. Levy, Daniel Drezner and myself operating in secret to keep our galactic plan on track. (Plus it would be a bit too close to the whole “Trilateral Commission” nonsense promulgated by the fringe.)

Of course, there's always the case to be made that psychohistory was just a Grade-A McGuffin... even within Asimov's universe!