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“The Science behind my forecast for 2020”

Quite a number of people, here and on Twitter, asked me about how I came up with my forecast for 2020. Here’s the story.

By the early 2000s I had already delved into structural-demographic theory and its implications for historical societies. These results went into Historical Dynamics (2003) and in much greater detail into Secular Cycles (2009). But every time I gave a talk about this research, someone in the audience was sure to ask, where are we now in the cycle? So around 2006-2007 I started gathering data on the USA. I remember giving a talk about this research to Santa Fe Institute colleagues in 2008, when I was there for a sabbatical year.

In early 2010 Nature asked a number of scientists about their forecasts for the next decade. By that point I already had a fully developed computational model for forecasting structural-demographic pressures for instability. Frankly, the results for the USA scared me. So I sent them my rather pessimistic forecast, which, somewhat surprisingly, they published. The Nature article had to be very short, so I later published the details of the approach, model, and data in a much longer article, Modeling Social Pressures Toward Political Instability. I’ve been publishing such scientific predictions (see my blog post on how this differs from “prophecy”) from the beginning of my scientific career, because this is the main way we can really test our theories.

In the years since 2010 a number of journalists interviewed me about this prediction, but the quality of resulting pieces were quite variable, from very good to rather bad. If you want to get the story right, better read what I wrote. In particular, here are two popular articles that I published in 2013:

Return of the Oppressed. From the Roman Empire to our own Gilded Age, inequality moves in cycles. The future looks like a rough ride. Aeon Magazine

Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays. Bloomberg View Op-Eds

Then, in January of this year I teamed up with another structural-demographic theorist, Andrey Korotayev, to revisit the forecast made in 2010. So far, this article has gone through one round of review at a scientific journal, and we have just resubmitted a revised version. Yesterday I posted the revised version on a preprint server; it also has supplementary materials with the data file and an R script that implements the model. If you want to delve into the details, here’s the link:

Turchin, Peter and Andrey Korotayev. 2020. “The 2010 Structural-Demographic Forecast for the 2010–2020 Decade: A Retrospective Assessment.” SocArXiv Preprint.

Abstract

This article revisits the prediction, made in 2010, that the 2010–2020 decade would likely be a period of growing instability in the United States and Western Europe [1]. This prediction was based on a computational model that quantified in the USA such structural-demographic forces for instability as popular immiseration, intraelite competition, and state weakness prior to 2010. Using these trends as inputs, the model calculated and projected forward in time the Political Stress Indicator, which in the past was strongly correlated with socio-political instability. Ortmans et al. [2] conducted a similar structural-demographic study for the United Kingdom. Here we use the Cross-National Time-Series Data Archive for the US, UK, and several major Western European countries to assess these structural-demographic predictions. We find that such measures of socio-political instability as anti-government demonstrations and riots increased dramatically during the 2010–2020 decade in all of these countries.

Original: Peter Turchin