Saturday, 17 April 2010


Cliology may be defined as the science that seeks to understand and predict the course of history—from Clio, the Greek muse of history. As far as I know, no such science is currently practised, but it was named and interestingly discussed in Michael Flynn's novel In the country of the blind (1990).

Such a science was already imagined in the 1940s by Isaac Asimov under the name of psychohistory, but I have a feeling that Flynn's name may triumph in the long run, because by now we already have the genuine scientific fields of cliometrics and cliodynamics, both of which could perhaps be seen as early precursors of cliology.

It is, of course, impossible to predict the course of history with accuracy, but statistical analysis and a general understanding of historical forces may eventually enable people to predict history well enough to be of some use: just as a weather forecast may be of some use even if it's sometimes wrong.

In the fiction of both Asimov and Flynn, cliology is more or less a secret science, used to predict the history of a population that's unaware of cliology. Asimov, at least, felt that the predictive ability of the science would be spoiled if the whole population under study was aware of cliology and of its specific predictions.

This awareness would make prediction more difficult, but I think not necessarily impossible, for two reasons.

  • People have always attempted to predict future history, and there are some future historical developments that can be predicted fairly well without advanced science. Sometimes, people aware of such predictions can change their behaviour to avoid the predicted event; sometimes, even knowing the prediction, they can't avoid it. I don't think this will change in any fundamental way if the predictions become more accurate.
  • Predicting the future of people who are aware of the prediction is a kind of recursive problem, and I think science in general is not helpless in the face of recursive problems. Computer programs, for instance, routinely include recursive functions.

Even if recursive prediction doesn't work, a non-recursive prediction would be far from useless. It could be seen more as a warning: if you carry on the way you're going, this is what will happen.