This month Dave Allman conducts a wide-ranging interview with John Casti, scholar, entrepreneur, and author of numerous books, including the well-received socionomics primer
Mood Matters this spring. Excerpts of their conversation follow. —Ed.
Dave Allman: Hi, Dr. Casti. Thanks for joining us today.
John Casti: Thanks, Dave.
You were talking about “social behavioral patterns” back in 1989, for example in Paradigms Lost. What a great title!
That book was a collection of about six mini-books, each one addressing a major unsolved problem in modern science. One of the unsolved problems was the “nature-versus-nurture” question. That is, to what degree is human behavior genetically programmed in—as opposed to the dominant influence being the environment in which you live? In its more modern incarnation, it’s usually termed “evolutionary psychology.” The book didn’t come to any definitive conclusions. My objective was to look at these big questions of modern science and the competing paradigms and see who holds which positions and why. Just for fun and to make it easier to read, I structured each of the questions as a kind of jury trial. I presented the prosecution and defense.
In Mission to Abisko (1997), another compilation, you touched on something that you do very well—the popularization of science, making it accessible to the masses. Should this be a main goal of socionomists—to explain ideas in a “Popular Science” way?
I guess it depends on your tastes in these matters. As you mentioned, my own tastes are to make things as clear as possible. In fact, I have chosen most of my books’ topics not because I am an expert on them. Instead, I wanted to understand those questions more deeply myself. I thought that one of the best ways I could come to understand them was to try to explain them to somebody else. Almost all the books I have written have that character. With socionomics, I received a lot of feedback on the manuscript from friends and so on. I kept sharpening and sharpening my view of the whole topic. Eventually I was able to convey it with almost an outsider’s inside perspective. It was especially difficult in the case of socionomics because, as you know yourself, you have to ask people to suspend their disbelief about the way the world actually works. And that is a pretty tough requirement.
Especially for people who spent a small fortune to be indoctrinated into traditional economic thought, for example.
Right. I must have given in the order of 100 presentations about socionomics since my first article about it in New Scientist
nine years ago. I’ve spoken about it in pretty much every corner of the world. Almost without exception, the reaction is very encouraging and positive. I think that Bob Prechter would probably tell you the same story. But, having people tell you, “Gee, it caused me to think differently about everything” is not the same thing as people saying, “I changed my mind about this particular belief I once held.” This notion that events cause people to feel a certain way or that events drive social mood is so deeply wired into the human mindset that it’s almost impossible for some people to abandon it. In fact, even though audiences on the whole are encouraging about socionomic observations, I have also had people in the audience who were so bothered and so troubled by the idea that underlies socionomics—that mood is the factor for events, not the other way around—that they were unable to even discuss the matter in a rational way. And these were academics, who are supposed to rely on scientific observation to arrive at their conclusions about the world. Some became angry and stomped out of the lecture room, some slamming the door on the way out.
Yeah, I get that at home. Well, at least you know you were heard! So, do you think that there are better sociometers than the markets?
I do not think that we will find any with all of the very useful properties of the financial markets. I do wish that we could measure mood directly with brain probes because it would make life infinitely easier for expositors of socionomics. Then nobody would imagine that Mood Matters
is about financial markets. I wish I could have used all the same charts in Mood Matters
, but not labeled them as movements of the financial markets. I wish I could have just labeled the vertical axes “social mood” and left it at that.
Iben Browning was a brilliant climatologist who had some very good forecasts and some great insights, but of course the media built up an earthquake forecast he had made that did not materialize. Forever more they referred to Browning as the climatologist who forecast the earthquake that didn’t happen.
There are plenty of examples [like that one]. These days, most of the people who are serious about forecasting do not put themselves in the position to get trapped. Even if you had a 100% surefire method of forecasting specific events, which no one does, you would then face bigger challenges. Number one, who do you tell? And number two, how do you get them to take action? These are not scientific questions. These are social, political, and psychological issues that reside far outside the laboratory.
I am head of a project at our Institute that has the grand title of Extreme Events in Human Society. The focus of the project is to acquire insight into the likelihood of human-generated extreme events like the financial crises, terrorist attacks, political disturbances, revolutions, and so on. When I first set up this project I said, “We are not going to be in the business of making point-in-time forecasts like, ‘This country is going to have a revolution at this time and such-and-such a party is going to come into power.’” Such forecasts are lunacy; nobody can do that. To even hold out the prospect that you can borders on scientific fraud.
On the other hand, you can
shed light on the environment within which events unfold and say that when the environment is in a certain state, it biases the likelihood or unlikelihood of events of a certain type. So for example, you can say that a revolution or terrorist attack is more likely to take place in a period when you have a particular social mood than at other times. This is why socionomics is very important.
Editor's Note: This article by Dave Allman was originally published in the Sept. 2010 Socionomist; Also see Elliott Wave International for more.
On April 13, 2013, Todd Harrison, founder and CEO of Emmy-winning website Minyanville and 21-year Wall Street veteran, will speak at the 2013 Social Mood Conference. Join Todd, Robert Prechter, and some of the brightest financial, academic, and entrepreneurial minds in the world to see how today's leading socionomics researchers are tearing down old barriers and building new standards for social mood research. Learn more at: www.socialmoodconference.com/details
No positions in stocks mentioned.