An Economist Nitpicks Sci-Fi: Foundation and Chaos

James K

James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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46 Responses

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    Love this, I really do. One quibble:

    This is why weather forecasting is so hard; you miss the air displaced by the flight of a single butterfly and your model can miss a hurricane.

    No. If air had no viscosity (if it was inviscid) tiny inputs would matter, but the viscosity of air and the turbulence that results from it, will damp any of those kids of inputs. Weather is driven primarily by heat and pressure, so while a butterfly can’t do anything, a forest fire most certainly can (although it wouldn’t trigger a hurricane).Report

  2. Kolohe says:

    The future is difficult to predict [citation needed].

    Yogi Berra

    Good stuff. Also depending on how much wants to include the ‘extended universe’ there are either one or two other forces keeping everything on track in post-imperial the galaxy.Report

  3. In other words, identifying and studying the Monday Effect caused it to disappear.

    Something smilier can happen in programming. For instance, if a bug is timing-related, adding additional tracing to investigate it can cause it to disappear. If it’s a memory smash, recompiling to include more debugging information can mean that different memory is overwritten, hiding the problem.Report

  4. J_A says:

    It also means that chaotic systems tend to have a predictive horizon – predicting a chaotic process is workable up to a certain point in the future, but becomes highly unpredictable beyond that.

    Is this a TRUE statement, like the uncertainty principle, that there is a hard limit to the predictability of chaotic systems, or is it just that we do not have the mathematical or computational tools to extend the predictive horizon indefinitely?

    If the latter, I’ll posit that 10,000 years have solved the problem. Hari Seldon’s contribution was actually developing the mathematical tools to extend this predictive horizon.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to J_A says:

      Digital electronics is full of situations where predicting when transitions will occur becomes nearly impossible, at least if there’s any noise mixed in: hysteresis, metastability, the effects of switching time versus propagation time, transient periods where cascading failures become possible, etc. I would think it at least arguable that large complex social systems have similar features.Report

    • James K in reply to J_A says:


      It’s not precisely a hard cap, but the problem isn’t mathematical – the issue stems from tiny unobserved features of your data having larger and larger effects over time. Better computing power helps a little, but the computing power required to make small gains in forecast length explodes. You very quickly reach a point where a galaxy’s worth of perfect computing material wouldn’t be enough.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to James K says:

        James K: but the problem isn’t mathematical –

        I thought the problem *was* mathematical, in that one can show many examples of non-linear iterative equations where small changes to the initial inputs yield vastly different outputs after a few iterations. Or at least that’s what I understood from a math class on chaos and fractals some 25 years ago.Report

  5. J_A says:

    What would a psychohistorian in 1899 need to know to predict geopolitics in 1999?

    The first thing you’d need to predict is World War One. And that was precipitated by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists, so your model will need to account for every tiny band of nationalists and could-be assassins who could disrupt the balance of power in Europe.
    On the other hand, Europe was a powder keg in the 1910s. Maybe the precipitating event doesn’t matter much. One could argue that WWI was going to happen anyway, and all the Serbian nationalists did was change the timing a little. That’s a fair point,….

    It is indeed a fair point – The Great Powers had spent the last 20 years planning for this specific war –
    a war between the Central Powers and vs Russia+France, centered on a Balkan issue (Would Britain be neutral or side with France was more of an open question). The war was going to happen sooner or later, and there were important reasons, mostly economic (the industrial development of Russia and whether or not it could catch up with Germany) why the Central Powers wanted the war to happen as soon as it was diplomatically possible

    but what effect would changing WWI’s timing have? For example, what is the probability that Corporal Adolf Hitler would have been killed if the times and places of battles in WWI were slightly different? I have to assume it’s high, since the death rate of front line soldiers in WWI was very high. And what would WWII look like if Hitler had died? Would it have happened at all?

    I think it is fairly easy for psychohistory to predict that the Peace that would follow WWI would be a very harsh one. Given Versailles, the rise of a populist government in Germany focused on revenge is fairly plausible. Would taht government also engage in the Final solution is more an open question, but teh popularity of Jews iall over Europe at that time was not very high in any country.

    For that matter, if WWI had happened a little earlier or later, what effect would that have had on the Russian Revolution? Would different timing have favoured the Mensheviks over the Bolsheviks? Might the revolution have been thwarted entirely? Try to imagine the back half of the 20th Century without the USSR.

    The Romanov Dynasty was doomed. The more the Romanovs tried to reinforce their power, the more certain the Revolution would have been. The February Revolution was headed by a bourgeoisie that was but a tiny minority in the country, and almost inexistent outside of Moscow and St Petersburg. It has really no contact with the masses of peasants and soldiers, and could not command their loyalty. A Bolshevik government is a stronger probability

    Psychohistory works!!!!!!!Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to J_A says:

      I think it is fairly easy for psychohistory to predict that the Peace that would follow WWI would be a very harsh one. Given Versailles, the rise of a populist government in Germany focused on revenge is fairly plausible

      This is the step I don’t buy. Versailles was the result of narrowly specific circumstances, starting with who says Germany was doomed from the start to losing?Report

      • @richard-hershberger

        Indeed there are good theoretical reasons to assume that the outcome of any war that actually happened is hard to predict – if the outcome was highly predictable, it is unlikely the war would be fought at all since both side would realised the likely outcome and would settle tier conflict by less destructive means.Report

  6. Burt Likko says:

    I largely agree with this, @j_a . Our hypothetical 1899 psychohistorian wouldn’t even necessarily need to know how all the alliances in WWI broke down, only the major powers on each side and the eventual victor. Nor would she need to know the mode of victory, be that on the battlefield or through diplomacy.

    Two Mules to her might have been the United States and Mexico — if the USA entered or not seems like a murkier question, although if it did it would have joined the Great Powers rather than the Central Allies. And Mexico’s neutrality would also not have been certain; the psychohistorian might have made a mistake and projected Mexico would have become Germany’s catspaw, exactly as Germany would have wanted. (Though a political antipathy atop strong economic interaction would likely have happened anyway.)

    And we can play psychohistorian in 2018, too. It’s not difficult to foresee the United States’ flirtation with populism and nominal isolationism souring relations with other significant powers, and that leading to a quadripolar world, with foci of power in Washington, Brussels, Moscow, and Beijing. And that, in turn, sounds a lot like the Concert of Europe writ global and with nuclear weapons, and if the prospect of THAT doesn’t chill you to the bone, nothing will.Report

    • CJColucci in reply to Burt Likko says:

      What chills me to the bone is the thought that so much depends on the good sense and restraint of Kim Jong Un.Report

    • James K in reply to Burt Likko says:


      It’s definitely not the case the everything has already been invented – over the course of the series The Foundation continues to make scientific advances. The Old Empire is described as technologically moribund – this is seen as part of the reasons for its decline. Over the course of the series the Empire actually decays in technology, as it loses the institutional support for maintaining its scientific knowledge.

      As an aside, there’s a passage early on in Foundation that talks about how the technological base of some of the outer provinces has severely decayed. Some of the characters note with shock that these provinces no longer have atomic power, and despair at how primitive a society must be to be reliant purely on chemical power sources. I laughed when I read this, it wasn’t a happy laugh, but I did laugh.Report

  7. Michael Cain says:

    The first thing you’d need to predict is World War One.

    The thing you would need to get right, though, assuming the goal is to predict the shape of the world rather than the details, is global conventional war ending with the rise of two nuclear-armed superpowers by 1950. Which superpowers is a relatively minor detail. The next thing that you would have to get right is that MAD works and civilization survives until 1999. I always interpreted psychohistory as being about getting the shape right, not the details. Getting that 1950 right in 1899 would be astounding: the neutron, key to building the Bomb, wasn’t theorized until 1919 and not discovered until 1932.

    Then, in 1949, the intrepid psychohistorians project to 1999. What are they likely to miss that would be in place by 1999 and shape the 50 years beyond that? Well, what almost all of the science fiction authors missed at that time was ubiquitous high-powered computing. How many times does the discussion here degenerate into arguing over whether computing is about to create a post-scarcity world, or a collapse back into serfdom (serfs with smart phones, mind you).

    My complaint about the Foundation universe is that technicalogical progress — aside from psychohistory itself, an advancement in math — seems to have essentially stopped.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

      But does technological advancement shape psychology that much? Or rather, if you had 10000 years of ‘good’ data, how well could you model the impacts of technology upon human psychology?Report

      • James K in reply to Oscar Gordon says:


        To know that you’d have to know what technology was going to be developed. That’s one of the reasons predicting human behaviour is so hard – in order to do it you also have to predict everything else successfully.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to James K says:

          I don’t think the specifics of the technology are that important, but rather what effect certain classes of technology can have on a population.

          Look at the internet. You could say that there was no way to predict the impacts the internet would have on people, but looking back at things, starting with, say, the printing press, you could model how advances in information technology as a class can impact people. And if you have 10000 years of data, across multiple planets, where technology waxes and wanes, you might be able to come up with something.

          What you have to watch out for is something that utterly breaks your classifications. Something that comes out of left field and adds a completely new archetype to your model.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Michael Cain says:

      My complaint about the Foundation universe is that technicalogical progress — aside from psychohistory itself, an advancement in math — seems to have essentially stopped.

      My distant recollection is that the Empire was explicitly presented as being culturally moribund. IIRC, there was a bit about how scholars studied the works of earlier scholars, and it would never occur to them to do original research. Given the context, I take this as a stereotyped and not particularly accurate version of Late Antiquity. In the alternative, I suppose for the physical sciences the argument could be that everything was known, so technological progress was no longer possible.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Isn’t that view of the late Roman Empire Gibbon’s view, though?Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kolohe says:

          Pretty much. Gibbon is well worth reading as a prose stylist. Asimov made the mistake of reading him as history.Report

          • Kolohe in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

            My understanding from Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast is that Gibbon is still a valuable source, worth reading, it’s just you have to account for his biases and narrative pre-conceptions (which is not really that different than any other source)

            Iirc, Gibbon’s biggest error is blaming too much on Christians.Report

            • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kolohe says:

              I am at the edge of where I know what I am talking about–or perhaps a bit past the edge, so take this as me breaking wind.

              That being said, history books age out just like science books–just not as fast. In a way, they age out more thoroughly than do science books. You could read a classical mechanics textbook from a hundred years ago and the content should hold up just fine. Classical mechanics has been thoroughly understood for a long time, and other advances such as quantum mechanics or relativity don’t really matter here.

              The same isn’t true with history. Gibbon had a body of literary texts from late antiquity to work with. A modern historian has a substantially larger body of texts, what with stuff constantly turning up moldering in some monastic library. This isn’t just incidental material. Stuff like sermons of St. Augustine have bubbled up to the surface. Add to this a quarter millennium’s worth of archaeology, which was in its infancy in Gibbon’s time.

              I am guessing that Duncan speaks well of Gibbon partly to give a point of contact with his audience. The crowd that listens to that podcast are likely to at least heard of Gibbon, if not having actually read him, much less in its entirety. Also, he was a fine prose stylist, and legitimately admired on that account.

              Finally, any historian is also, within his field, a historiographer. Part of my early baseball research is reading both older and newer histories of early baseball, even when I know going in that they are utter crap. It is important to know what non-specialists think about the subject, and even more important to check any unexamined assumptions I might hold on the subject. Gibbon is the great ape of Late Antiquity studies. He is an unavoidable point of reference.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

                Duncan does talk extensively about historiography throughout his podcasts. I may be mischaracterizing Duncan’s view on Gibbon; what I specifically remember is him saying something like ‘for the next few podcasts, Gibbon is one of the sources.’

                I think you’d like Duncan; he’s you, except with Rome & Revolutions instead of baseball.Report

              • greginak in reply to Kolohe says:

                I’ve been listening to Revolutions lately. Really good stuff. Havn’t done his Rome podcast but there is so much Rome stuff already out there and i already have a good rome cast i’m going through.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to greginak says:

                I came across his stuff sometime a year or two ago; I forget how now (here?).

                I do remember that my entry point was the English revolution, and by the time I had caught up with his then current story (Latin American?) I went back and checked out Rome while I was awaiting more Content.Report

      • I suppose for the physical sciences the argument could be that everything was known, so technological progress was no longer possible.

        Since I started out picking on the 1899 example… Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of US Patent Office, in 1899: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

        I have long maintained that “Engineers are gonna engineer,” be that a matter of making a better stick for digging up tubers or improving the FTL drive so Andromeda is within reach. As necessary, if there aren’t already scientists and mathematicians, some of the engineers will do science and math research. We’re supposed to buy into the notion that in an entire galaxy, Hari Seldon is the only person doing original research? And I note, just in passing, that no sooner has Hari come up with his breakthrough mathematics than he turns into an uber-engineer, attempting to manipulate the whole galaxy.Report

    • H.G. Wells theorized something that seems a bit like atomic bombs destroying and rendering unusable most of the major cities of the world in his dud of a novel The World Set Free, published in 1913. What he described was a “continuous explosion,” but a super-weapon of some sort having caused massive destruction and leaving enduring scars on the landscape was within imagination.

      For our purposes, we can imagine a psychohistorian making plausible assumptions about incremental advances in technology. Computers will grow faster and smaller and more powerful. Power generation and recycling of certain materials will become more efficient. Things like that. Plus, they’ve been telling me for the past forty years that we’re about twenty years away from practical fusion power on an industrial scale, and maybe this time they’re right.Report

      • So I, the psychohistorian, put “assume a super-bomb” into my equations. Assign whatever probabilities I want, but the question still comes down to “Will they use it, either on purpose or by accident?” Glitches came disturbingly close to triggering launches on more than one occasion. And there’s always the possibility of a Mule, in the form of a psychopath who comes to power and pushes the button.

        Given CRISPR, what are the odds that we get a Death of Grass virus? Assume all grain-producing grass variants die off over the next three years. What’s that do to your forecast?

        Another disturbing, although unstated, aspect of the series is that there are thousands (millions?) of planets, and the psychohistorians can lose a lot of them and still have things work out. In the same vein as what so many people have noted before, a 25% chance that the super-bomb will get used is 100% for the people who live on the planets where it happens.Report

        • Well, for that, you’re going to have to ask a psychohistorian. Though I find dark amusement in the notion of a space alien unable to penetrate our language but observing our progress through technology wondering just what the hell those people in Nevada and Kazakhstan were doing that was so awful, and why they insisted on keeping it up anyway.Report

          • Well, sort of. There’s a certain resemblance to parents who say to their misbehaving children, “Stop that! This time I really mean it!” Given that they never actually nuked Reno, or Las Vegas, or any of the smaller population centers.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Michael Cain,

      My complaint about the Foundation universe is that technicalogical progress — aside from psychohistory itself, an advancement in math — seems to have essentially stopped.

      Well we know for a fact that technological progress isn’t linear. Just comparing the last couple of centuries to the sum of history prior has people talking about singularities since the progress appears exponential or geometric.

      But is that realistic? Can technological progress just keep advancing faster and faster forever? I would predict something more like an S-shaped curve–slow at first, then getting more rapid, and then tapering off and eventually slowing to something resembling stasis.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to Michael Cain says:

      Adding: Keep in mind that the setting of Foundation is approximately as far in our future as the dawn of agriculture is in our past.Report

    • I admit that I didn’t expect people to argue about the technology thing. I expected to get hammered on my implicit statement that a 1950 where the two nuclear-armed superpowers in a cold war were Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would be as correct as a US/USSR prediction.Report

      • Dark Matter in reply to Michael Cain says:

        implicit statement that a 1950 where the two nuclear-armed superpowers in a cold war were Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would be as correct as a US/USSR prediction.

        If you know that nukes are going to be invented (which is a real trick), the United States going nuclear armed was foreseeable. We had the resources to throw at the problem. It was unclear what was the correct pathway to success so we tried everything while everyone else had a budget. However everyone else failing seems less predictable.

        I could way more easily see Nazi Germany + US as the nuclear powers than US/USSR depending on the year in which I’m making the guess and the amount of information I have. (Opinions may vary but) Germany and the US seem a lot more science focused than the 1940’s USSR and Japan. If Germany gets the bomb, a nuclear Germany nukes Moscow (decapting it’s leadership and thus saving the bulk of the German army) and London, and then sues for peace with the USA.

        “Mules” are common.Report

  8. Dark Matter says:

    You’re standing in Europe making 20 year predictions.

    It’s 1900 and things look great, you don’t see WW1 coming.

    It’s 1920 and Germany is in a shambles. You don’t see WW2 coming much less that it will be everyone against Germany.

    It’s 1940 and Germany is on top of the world and looks unstoppable. The USSR is allied with the USA.

    It’s 1960, Germany lost. USSR and USA are bitter rivals.

    It’s 1980 and the USSR is on top of the world, the cold war is in full swing. It could go on a long time.

    It’s 2000 and the USSR has fallen apart.

    This type of mass long term prediction is really hard, not just because there’s not enough information but because that information itself is highly political. Nazi Germany and the USSR are hardly going to be open about the weaknesses in their systems, to the extent they admit they exist they’re actively going to be trying to fix them.

    WW1 being “inevitable” is largely armchair quarterbacking and the powers that be trying to minimize their failures. Nazi Germany could have, if not totally won the war, not had a total defeat. If Hitler and/or Stalin hadn’t dodged one of the assassination attempts, the outcome of the war would probably had been very different. Invading Russian in the winter seems like an unforced error. If Stalin had died maybe Russia falls to infighting.

    Note “different” doesn’t have to mean “less nasty”. Hitler was very much against chemical weapons because of his experiences in WW1, a different leader could have felt different. Worst case, a different line up of people might have prioritized the creation of the nuke and managed to make it work.

    I get that lots of stuff averages out and doesn’t matter, but a nuclear armed Hitler not balanced by Stalin seems like something that would have long term effects.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Dark Matter says:

      Invading Russian in the winter seems like an unforced error.

      A nitpick: Operation Barbarossa kicked off on June 22. There is a plausible argument that even this date was an unforced error, with the invasion delayed while the Germans putzed around in Greece cleaning up Mussolini’s mess. Would starting a month earlier have made any difference in the long run? Maybe. Probably not, but it isn’t impossible.Report

      • Barry in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Actually, it was not. Germany had done quite well on the Eastern Front in WWI. Meanwhile, their tech base for waging large area warfare – aircraft, trucks, tanks, and radios – had radically improved.Report

  9. Patrick says:

    I really want to read this post, but I’m stuck dealing with IT stuff today.

    I just wanted to say that I’m going to come back to this as soon as I can, and I suspect I’ll really like it, James.Report