Tuesday, April 21, AD 2009
This Newsweek article about Nobel Prize-winning economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman contained an interesting biographical detail:
Krugman says he found himself in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, especially the “Foundation” series—”It was nerds saving civilization, quants who had a theory of society, people writing equations on a blackboard, saying, ‘See, unless you follow this formula, the empire will fail and be followed by a thousand years of barbarism’.”
His Yale was “not George Bush’s Yale,” he says—no boola-boola, no frats or secret societies, rather “drinking coffee in the Economics Department lounge.” Social science, he says, offered the promise of what he dreamed of in science fiction—”the beauty of pushing a button to solve problems. Sometimes there really are simple solutions: you really can have a grand idea.”
This struck me because I read Asimov’s original three foundation novels several times when I was in high school, yet the one thing that always really bothered me about the books was the idea that Hari Seldon and his psychohistorians could calculate out with precision everything that would happen for centuries. And even granted this determinist vision, it bothered me even more that the one great unpredictable factor was the character named The Mule, whom Seldon’s equations could not predict the actions of because the Mule was a mutant and thus inherently a creature of randomness rather than predictability. The absurd premise and the absurd exception to it gnawed at me, though the great virtue of the books is that they are among the small number of science fiction books with the sort of grant historical sweep which a devotee of history cannot help but enjoy.
It’s interesting to me that it was precisely the element of Foundation which I always disliked which attracted Krugman. And perhaps allows me to claim that my political aversion to the idea of the centralized technocratic view of politics is a philosophy that runs fairly deep.