Sunday, August 05, 2012

Bad Times a-Comin'?

It's no secret that we're living in an America that is very different from the one in which many of us grew up. Incivility and irrational anger have skyrocketed, the level of slime and nastiness in politics is at near-historic levels, and there's a general my-way-or-the-highway attitude that has taken hold among political parties, religions, and just about everybody but the local chess club*. Society has gotten more insensitive, more crass, and more violent, and the voices of reason and civility are being drowned out by the drumbeat of argument and unreason for its own sake.

So, Dear Readers, if we follow this miserable condition to its ultimate conclusion, where do we end up?

A very sobering possibility is suggested in this fascinating article by Natalie Wolchover from the online science news magazine LiveScience: Will the US Really Experience a Violent Upheaval in 2020?

It's not an outlandish or trivial question.

Dr Peter Turchin, an ecologist, evolutionary biologist and mathematician at the University of Connecticut, uses the new science of cliodynamics to extrapolate mathematical modeling data from the historical record. Using his methods, the article points out his conclusion that "the (historical) data indicates that a cycle of violence repeats itself every 50 years in America, like a wave that peaks in every other generation. This short-term cycle is superimposed over another, longer-term oscillation that repeats every 200 to 300 years. The slower waves in violence can either augment or suppress the 50-year peaks, depending on how the two cycles overlap." The data can be seen on this chart, which accompanies the article:

On this one, from Professor Turchin's cliodynamics website, which presents the data with a bit more color and explanation:

And on this larger chart, from, which adds still more detail (click it to see the entire thing):

Find out how some scientists think that violence peaks in cycles of about 50 years, in this Life's Little Mysteries infographic.

Extrapolating from the historical data, we could see a spike in the level of violence in this country somewhere around 2020 ... just eight years from now.

This is not an unreasonable fear. The level of political polarization and irrational anger, the growing disparity among economic classes, the ready availability of high-powered weapons, and a culture centered on the rights of the individual rather than the benefit of the larger society all suggest that the prediction could be correct.

Of course, cliodynamics has its detractors. Massimo Pigliucci, a social scientist who studies pseudoscience and skeptical thinking, comments about Turchin's theory that,

"The database is too short: the entire study covers the period 1780-2010, a mere 230 years. You can fit at most four 50-year peaks and two [long-term] ones. I just don't see how one could reasonably exclude that the observed pattern is random."

Well, random or not, it provides food for serious thought. I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that the present level of heavily-armed irrationality in this country could lead to a spasm of violence in the coming years. Unfortunately, the people who most need to understand the role of their behavior in leading to this unhappy future are those least likely to pay any attention to the message.

What do you think? Is Dr Turchin being an alarmist, or are you running down to the local gun shop to stock up your arsenal for the coming explosion?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* And even there, the queens are demanding the right to kiss each other at Chick-fil-A restaurants.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

These are ominous times; but cyclic theories of history tend to be based on selective data sampling and only over smaller time frames.

One good trend: the total decline in lynchings.

Big Sky Heidi said...

Has a lack of political civility a new development, or was it always nasty?

Duckbutt said...

Time would not be the cause by itself, but what happens to be going on.

The two most devastating wars of the 20th century happened just 21 years apart, shorter than the 50 year cycle. And we have more systematic coverage of shootings and disorder due to more news coverge.

Mike said...

Speaking of 'armed irrationality', 6 more people killed today at a temple.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

2020 is only eight years from now. Stil, this theory seems far-fetched.

The theory seems to predict cyclic peaks in civil violence.