Scientist predicted current U.S. protests and riots in 2010, says civil unrest may last 10-15 years

MOSCOW, Russia — The outbreak of civil unrest and rioting in many cities this year may seem like a spontaneous reaction to social issues, but one study says there’s nothing spontaneous about them. Despite the fact that the vast majority of protesters are demonstrating peacefully, scenes of looting and violence still mar these protests that are meant to be non-violent. One scientist is being credited with predicting in 2010 the turmoil being seen across the globe today.

Using an innovative mathematical theory, researchers say they can show when countries will face social and political unrest. In the United States, they say violent surges occur every 50 years and this one is tragically right on time.

Peter Turchin, a Russian-American scientist from the University of Connecticut, used the structural-demographic theory (SDT) to accurately predict the increasing protests in the U.S. and western Europe throughout the 2010s. In a new paper in the journal PLoS ONE, Turchin and co-author Andrey Korotayev look back at how math can actually forecast future events.

A 50-year cycle of unrest?

Trends in anti-government demonstrations (green) and riots (dark red) in the USA from 1946–2018.
(Credit: P. Turchin, A. Korotayev / PLoS ONE)

To come up with these predictions, scientists first create a historical theory. Several factors are then calculated and a specific prediction is produced. Researchers then compare these social forecasts to real historical events to tweak and fine-tune future results.

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, is an unpredictable event. Yet Turchin, a specialist in cliodynamics, the mathematical modeling of socio-historical processes, finds the protests and social conflicts spilling into American streets happen at regular intervals throughout history. The original 2010 study reveals outbursts of violence in the 1870s, 1920s, and 1970s. These 50-year cycles reach a crisis point as society becomes increasingly unstable, which the forecast seems to be accurately predicting for 2020. Disturbingly, the cliodynamics expert says these periods of social turmoil can last between 10 and 15 years.

How can you turn society into a math equation?

SDT was developed by American sociologist and historian Jack Goldstone. Using math, the theory was first applied to historical processes in order to see which forces interact and lead to riots, revolutions, and civil wars.

Goldstone’s work establishes that every major social and political movement, like revolutions, take place after a surge in births. As families have more children, the population quickly exceeds the country’s ability to take care of everyone. The standard of living drops and civil unrests begins.

While overpopulation causes daily life to crumble, the model says the financial and social elite begin taking sides. Some of these people will side with protesters against the current social system they have prospered in while others continue supporting the government. Goldstone’s models show all these factors end with an eruption of violence and even civil war in some nations.

Turchin and Russian scientists are now using this work to develop models looking at how the future will play out. These forecasts focus on four major factors:

  • The state (size of the government, GDP, debts, the legitimacy of power)
  • Population (its size, age demographics, level of urbanization, average wages, social optimism)
  • The “elites” (their population, their sources of income, their internal competition and social norms)
  • Instability (radical ideologies, terrorist or revolutionary movements, acts of public violence)

After boiling all these factors down, they produce the “political stress indicator.” Researchers say their studies find this key measure was off the charts right before key historical events like the French Revolution, English Civil War, and crisis within the Ottoman Empire.

What does this mean for 2020 and beyond?

The study points out that their models show that in both the United States and United Kingdom social unrest is reaching a point far worse than the last period 50 years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely increasing this intensity.

Turchin and his team report that epidemics often occur during times of social instability. These epidemics impact the most vulnerable communities and further trigger the public to take to the streets in frustration.

They add, using these tools, scientists can review current policies which are leading to social unrest. Making reforms before a crisis arrives, cliodynamics may actually help politicians prevent future predictions from becoming present day disasters.

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