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23 January 2017


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We now have 'alternative facts' thanks to Trump's PR people.

The media say there were 160,000 people at his inauguration and he says 1.5 million (the alternative fact).

The late Denis Dutton claimed we are falling into the trap were useless data is considered better than no data at all and this is particularly evident in the age of big data, especially in the social sciences and psychology, which includes psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, behaviourism, cognitive behaviour therapy, cybernetics, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology,neurolinguistic programming, neuro-scientific imaging and neurochemistry.

Notwithstanding these remarkable developments and the logorrhea and psychobabble, it would be a brave person who claims are self understanding, with the forlorn hope of an existence free of inner and outer conflict, is now greater than that of Montaigne or Shakespeare.

Human motives are rarely pure and never simple and to reiterate Theodore Dalrymple, we owe incomparably more to improved sewerage than to psychology.

The human brain, for something supposedly so brilliant and evolutionary advanced, is a pretty messy, extremely fallible and complicated organ.

For those who may be interested in how there just might be predictable cycles in history, I recommend The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Paul Kennedy.

In this magisterial work, Kennedy neatly describes how, to remain viable, all great powers require three critical factors: military power, economic power and internal cohesion. This is the three legged stool upon which all great powers balance.

The moment one of the legs fails, then the power concerned is in mortal jeopardy.

Using Kennedy's criteria, only the USA and China currently have a strong claim to great power status. But both are shaky, mostly for economic reasons, although social cohesion is a debatable point too.

So, Barbara, I think the UPNG lecturer was getting a bit ahead of the game. While the undisputed reign of the USA as the sole great power is now over, it nonetheless remains the most powerful nation on earth.

Quite what its new President will do with that power remains to be seen.

Well, UPNG students who did Prelim Year in the mid 1970s will know what you are talking about.

They had a history lecturer who had produced a History of the World for the Prelim Year course.. based on the Rise and Fall of Empires... which finished off with the rise and fall of the USA.

By the way, I think she was an American woman.

When you think about it the whole world operates on cycles. From the daily circadian rhythm of our bodies to the seasons each year. In the Southern Hemisphere we know it will be hot between December and March for instance and are attuned to that cycle.

As we age we also notice longer term cycles. With the weather things seem to change every ten years or so for instance. At a behavioural level we know about the 'seven year itch', the period when marriages come under threat.

In politics we recognise the infallible exchange of liberal and conservative governments every second term or so.

That such a cyclic pattern can be attached to history seems quite logical and not hard for the already cyclic mind of humanity to adapt to. The trick of course is the timing. This is where recognising the signs is important.

And that is something we are not very good at. We tend to resort to impractical methods like inspecting chicken intestines and casting stones and bones.

I suspect that this 'science' is a bit like economics. Highly probable but never accurate.

Bernard, I share your scepticism but feel that cliodynamics ought not be immediately categorised as charlatanism.

It is not implausible, with so much historic material now digitised (such as that gathered by Richard Jones, below) that really powerful computer programs can be devised to search for patterns or recurrent events that may provide clues as to how human societies work.

We know for sure that humans, for all their individual traits, are creatures of habit. We often behave in accordance with very well established traditions, social rules and attitudes, which can be local, regional and national in nature.

The recent resurgence in ethno-centric nationalism across Europe illustrates how powerful and enduring such deeply embedded ideas can be.

So, I reckon we wait and see just what comes out of this process. If it works as supposed, it will add a powerful new investigatory tool to the historians' armoury.

Dear Chris,
Reflecting on my cynicism, cliodynamicists cannot be any worse than economists (Paul Flanagan excepted).
There are three types of economists, ones that can count and ones that can't

Dear Chris,

This was most interesting and I was quite surprised to find the research laboratory was based in the UK. However, I am an acolyte of the late Denis Dutton, a renowned skeptic, who was the former editor of Arts and Letters Daily.

Their classification of cliodynamics as a science is a long bow. I prefer the term ontological alchemy.

In a much more modest role, I too am a keen student of history, Chris.

In my case searching out and chronicling the background and outstanding personalities of the Bendigo Football League.

It's one of the oldest Australian Rules competitions in Oz starting off as a three-club competition in 1880 after the alluvial gold on the planet's sixth richest-ever goldfield had run out and deep lead mining was all the go.

I'm now the official historian of the BFL. One of the most significant interviews I've undertaken in a half-century career in the print and electronic media came last September.

I interviewed a centenarian who had significant connections to one of the BFL's foundation clubs and when his playing days were over had taken up the whistle as a central umpire.

This gentleman recalled playing in the 1935 Bendigo grand final when he was a 19-year-old as if it had happened just the week before.

I sat in the car while re-winding and listening back to the interview on the iPhone thinking to myself: "In all the hundreds and hundreds of interviews I've done down the years, I have never before interviewed someone who's 100 years old!"

It took me back quite a bit just reflecting on the situation. And the gentleman lived on his own - his wife had died some years before - with just visits from his daughters and the Meals On Wheels volunteers to impact on his days.

When someone can recall so vividly what life was like during the Great Depression, the WW2 years and then straight after the war during the re-building decades it make you realise that many, many everyday people have amazing stories for we historians to document and re-tell.

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