Science fiction and positivist social science


in Books and literature, Geek stuff, Oxford, Politics

While thumbing through a copy of Frank Herbert‘s Dune that I bought for a Pound at a used book shop, I realized the extent to which the highest ideals of strongly positivist social science can be found in science fiction. Because of the complexity of his notion of politics – and the interconnections between politics and other phenomenon, like religion – Herbert’s perspective extends somewhat beyond social science as often envisioned. Much closer to the ideal is some of the work of Isaac Asimov, which I will come to in a moment.

Dune itself can be read if an interesting (if fictional) study of politics. The Bene Gesserit notion of politics as fundamentally bound up in the structural relationships between different entities would not be hugely out of place in an American international relations faculty. The connections drawn up in Dune between transport, resources, and power are also relevant to contemporary politics. Of course, at times Dune is quite a self-aware allegory for the situation in the Middle East. I was entertained to find a discussion of coercion and consent as dual means for maintaining power in the novel. With a bit of terminology changed, it could be in a textbook on Machiavelli and Gramsci.

A better example of positivism embraced in science fiction is the concept of psychohistory: as described in Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation novels. Basically, psychohistory is envisioned as a science that can accurately predict the development of human society in the long term, and for large numbers of people. While it can’t make specific predictions about precise moments in time, it can predict massive systemic reorganizations over the course of anywhere between decades and millennia. It’s a strong endorsement of the idea that history is guided by comprehensible forces.

One interesting twist is that even with the benefit of psychohistory, the arch-positivists in the Foundation novels must still be actively involved in shaping the development of the system they examine. Also, for the predictive power to be maintained, people must not be aware of the fact that psychohistory is being applied. To say much more would spoil a number of key surprises in an iconic science fiction series, but the connections between science fiction and social science – within the historical context that spawned both – might reveal some important things about the kind of project some people understand themselves as being engaged in, as regards the world around them.

An alternative explanation is that, after spending so much time trying to force as much IR as possible into my head, I can’t see things any other way. When an eight year old boy is given a hammer, he suddenly discovers that everything needs pounding.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous April 17, 2006 at 2:39 pm

Re: Asimov’s psychohistory

Psychohistory is an amalgamation of both hard and soft sciences. Asimov took the constructs of soft science: sociology, politics, economics, etc. and quantified it through the use of mathematics. This then gave rise to a predictive science capable of foreseeing the future.

Asimov himself takes “psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli.” This is highly similar to the social sciences.

Psychohistory is basically the holy grail of economics and sociology: the development of such powerful theoretical tools that extensive testable predictions can be generated.

Anonymous tipster April 17, 2006 at 3:34 pm


Your brother has a surprisingly explicit campaign video online. Featuring bad language and… full male nudity!

Also, Peter Cross ostensibly doing heroin.

Anonymous April 17, 2006 at 3:35 pm

Actually, this birthday video may be even worse.

Anonymous tipster April 17, 2006 at 3:39 pm

This kidnapping video is more incoherent than offensive. Why do the Siberian terrorists speak Spanish?

Milan April 18, 2006 at 11:28 am

Those are definitely somewhat surprising videos. That said, I am sure they are very funny for the people who are in on the joke.

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