|Socionomics: The Science of History
and Social Prediction
15 October 2003 | Reviewed by Fred Reynolds, from http://slashdot.org/
You'd think that predicting human behavior would be easy. The 'science' of economics is predicated on the observation that people act to further their own best self interests. In this idealized world, everyone is a rational economizer, busy calculating their individual costs and benefits, and acting accordingly.
In the real world, things aren't quite so simple, according to Robert R. Prechter's Socionomics: the Science of History and Social Prediction. It is plain to see that people do a lot of nutty things, and they usually do so in groups. They wear leg warmers, wide neckties, then narrow neckties. Long skirts, short skirts. No skirts. Paisley. They ride roller skates, then scooters. They buy Pet Rocks, collectible Beanie Babies, and stocks of dot-com companies with no profits and no business plan. They ingest odd substances, and subscribe to odd belief systems. They also fight wars, and blow themselves up, and others.
This irrational behavior has led to some telling but apparently casual observations, such as this gem by Charles MacKay from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."
It remains true that the non-rational behavior of human beings in society has usually made monkeys out of those who seriously attempt to forecast it.
This is why Robert Prechter's 2-volume opus Socionomics: The Science of History and Social Prediction is such a joy to read. It's a credible and provocative attempt to found a predictive science of human social behavior. It's also a truly different work. The number of new propositions and arguments advanced in Socionomics is matched by their highly controversial nature, and by the amount of evidence put forth by Prechter and his co-authors. Readers looking for non-fiction that is wide in scope, provocative, and meaty will enjoy these two books.
What's It All About?
It's helpful to think of Prechter's massive argument as if it was structured like an hour-glass. The first volume of the set, The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior and the New Science of Socionomics (hereafter: HSB) is the fat upper part of the glass. It provides the theoretical justification for a shorter set of linked propositions or principles that constitute the narrow neck. The second volume, Pioneering Studies in Socionomics (hereafter: PSS) consists of a series of essays and articles that apply those principles to a wide swath of human endeavor: music, sports, politics, war and peace, scientific and intellectual trends, religion, economics and finance. This is the fat bottom of the glass, the payoff of analysis and prediction.
Socionomics has been defined as the field of study encompassing the origins and effects of an endogenous human social dynamic called the Wave Principle, a specific sequence of progress and regress that regulates the complex system of collective mood and social interaction. It examines and forecasts market and social trends on the following basis: that the character of social, political, cultural, financial and economic trends are the product of collective human psychology, which is based upon an unconscious herding impulse deriving from pre-rational portions of the brain.
This definition shows why Socionomics... is a two-volume set: it's not easily summarized.
Any science must have a way to measure its subject. Prechter claims that human social behavior can be measured with several meters, but the most accurate meter is the movement and fluctuation of economic values, as expressed in the price level of the major stock averages. He believes that markets provide a real-time reflection of the collective social mood. Measuring social mood is important because:
1. The events of history and culture are driven by the engine of collective social mood. Social mood temporally and logically precedes social events, and is the cause of social events. War and terrorism don't cause distressed people; distressed people create the conditions and events that lead to and comprise war and terror. A booming economy does not create ebullient people; ebullient people produce more, consume more and participate in and contribute to market manias.
2. Social mood is itself the product of the interaction of the society's members. Collective mentation -- herding -- arises from the interaction of the players in a process similar to the emergent behavior of other complex, non-linear systems. Prechter quotes philosopher Eric Hoffer: When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.
3. Social mood fluctuates between polarities of primitive emotional states, such as confidence/fear, skepticism/credulity, optimism/pessimism, benevolence/malevolence, etc. These fluctuations are not effected by outside events, but move according to their own internal logic. They appear to arise in a dynamic that is endogenous to the social system.
4. Social mood fluctuations are patterned by the [Elliott] Wave Principle, a specific sequence of progress and regress that regulates the complex system of collective mood and social interaction. Prechter cites the work of market analyst R.N. Elliott, who, in the 1930s, discovered the patterns in the markets that bear his name. These patterns -- Elliott waves -- are measurable and may be charted.
5. Elliott waves, which are typically used to chart and forecast the movement of stock market valuations, are self-similar at different degrees of scale; i.e. a monthly chart of the Dow looks a lot like a weekly chart, or a 5-minute chart...or a 5-decade chart. Elliott apparently discovered that the market movements are fractal, decades before Mandelbrot invented the term and took credit for that observation.
6. The specific patterns described by Elliott waves are in close relation to the Fibonacci sequence of numbers. The Fibonacci sequence, and the Fibonacci ratio derived from it, appear ubiquitously in natural forms ranging from the geometry of the DNA molecule to the physiology of plants and animals.
7. The behavior of these fractal, Fibonacci-based waves is specific and patterned. Hence, it is (probabilistically) possible to predict human social behavior.
Given the emphasis placed upon it, it's probably not too gross a distortion to define socionomics as the science of social mood: its genesis, behavior, and effects.
Any one of the propositions above is controversial; taken together they are an extraordinary claim. In the first volume of the set, Prechter attempts to provide extraordinary evidence to support his claims, and he makes a strong case.
HSB surveys the evidence of fractals and Fibonacci in nature and finance. Prechter cites study after study that finds the Fibonacci sequence in phyllotaxis, in branching or arboral systems, in nautilus shells, pine cones, the DNA molecule, neurons and galaxies ... and in the Dow, Nasdaq, and other market indices. The implication is clear: human social activities are a natural process, no less than the growth of trees or the formation of solar systems. For some readers, this tour-de-force alone may be worth the price of the book.
Prechter then leans heavily on Paul MacLean's book, The Triune Brain in Evolution to explain his endogenous herding impulse. MacLean and others have found evidence that the pre-reasoning limbic system may be hard-wired to herd or flock. The reasoning neocortex may override the impulsive, emotional limbic system if given sufficient time -- and in this possibility lies our experience of free will. But the emotional limbic system is faster and more powerful than the reasoning neocortex, and often wins out. As Prechter puts it: If you doubt its power and speed, try to envision how you would react if someone suddenly dumped a dozen writhing three-foot blacksnakes in your lap. Understanding that they are harmless, try to decide how long it would take you nevertheless to train yourself not to budge upon being surprised that way in the future.
Building on this theoretical base, HSB goes on to develop detailed statements about socionomics proper, statements that Prechter identifies as observations, not yet a hypothesis. He categorizes various social polarities that seem to characterize all social interaction. He traces -- measures -- the ebb and flow between these polarities with various social meters, including popular culture (movies, fashion, music, sports) and, of course, the stock market. For one example, there is a chart of baseball stadium attendance figures in the U.S. that sports a clearly developed Elliott wave pattern. Based on the pattern, Prechter predicted that baseball's popularity would wane, as it subsequently has.
Pioneering Studies in Socionomics continues this analysis of contemporary trends and events as seen through a socionomic lens. Here's a short list of grist for the socionomic mill: restaurants, Broadway, religion, central banks (e.g. the Federal Reserve System), Pro Wrestling and the Bull Market, Microsoft, the attacks of 9/11, macroeconomics, and song lyrics. All of these human endeavors are found to fluctuate over time, in the now familiar fractal, Fibonacci-based Elliott waves.
Many Slashdot readers will be amused/intrigued/outraged by the chapter on quantum physics, and its parallel to the social sciences. Here Prechter cites the work (published and unpublished) of physicist Lewis E. Little. Little's thesis challenges the conventional view of quantum mechanics and presents a new theory that places activity at the sub-atomic level on the same grounds of cause and effect as all other physics. There's enough controversy in this chapter alone to merit a separate book!
As sprawling as these books are, there is no discussion of methodology, seemingly a critical lacuna in the founding of a new science. In the hard sciences there is today little discussion of methodology; the discussion has concluded. In the soft or social sciences, entire libraries could be filled with the debates on proper methodology. Which subjects should be chosen for research, and how should they be chosen? How should experiments be conducted? Or is experimentation possible? Or even desirable? Is the use of mathematics appropriate? If so, how?
Answers to these questions, which Prechter may provide in due time, are needed to defend what's proposed. For example, an easy criticism to make of the various essays in PSS is that the subject matter is cherry-picked, and that choosing different subjects may have yielded different results. The particular criticism may or may not be valid; it will take a methodological argument to answer.
A Closing Analogy
James Gleick's Chaos tells the story of the scientists and researchers who founded a new science. Over and over, they tell a similar story: that chaotic behavior was ever-present in the physical world, but dismissed as noise in the experiment. It required a profound shift in perspective to realize that the noise was worth studying.
Is Prechter, with his Fibonacci-based fractal waves of human social behavior and socionomic insight, correctly pointing out a similar need for a profound shift in perspective? Is the noise of pre-rational human social behavior worth studying? Does our future lie in our reasoning mind, or our prehistoric brain?