I'm Not Surprised, Makes Sense

David Trammel's picture

Not sure why the writers at the Guardian are so amazed that fiction writers can come up with scenarios that would be useful to predicting real world situations?

"‘At first I thought, this is crazy’: the real-life plan to use novels to predict the next war"

“We’d been unsure about whether to go public over the project,” recalls Isabelle Holz, Wertheimer’s assistant. The university had declined the opportunity to be formally involved with the defence ministry, which is why the initiative was run through the Global Ethic Institute, a faculty-independent institution set up by the late dissident Catholic, Hans Küng. “We thought our offices might get paint-bombed or something.”

They needn’t have worried. “Cassandra reaches for her Walther PPK” ran the headline in the local press after the project was announced, a sarcastic reference to James Bond’s weapon of choice. The idea that literature could be used by the defence ministry to identify civil wars and humanitarian disasters ahead of time, wrote the Neckar-Chronik newspaper, was as charming as it was hopelessly naive. “You have to ask yourself why the military is financing something that is going to be of no value whatsoever.”

In the end, the launch of Project Cassandra saw neither paint bombs nor sit-ins. The public, Holz says, “simply didn’t take us seriously. They just thought we were mad.”

I don't know who knows less history here, the Guardian reporter or the thinktank people.

English writers were writing "Invasion Literature" for decades leading up to World War I. It was popular too, even if forgotten today. Everyone knew something dreadful was happening and wondering what would set the world on fire. Novels were crammed full of the Bosch invading England and sometimes, making it better!

In case you wonder how we know: Bill learned about Invasion Literature when researching the Sherlock Holmes parodies written between 1900 and 1914. Neither of us had ever heard of them, but there they were. Another forgotten genre, like the 'save your family with thrift' genre.

I saw that article yesterday, too! An old friend and I used to talk about this very thing, and I see that there's a term floating around called hyperstition, which is a fancy way of referring to a self-fulfilling prophecy. One doesn't know whether works of fiction make predictions, or whether in some cases the fiction has illuminated previously unconsidered possibilities which people grasp on, and end up turning into reality.

Fascinating. But it strikes me as a bad idea to go public about this. There's something called Goodhart's law, which states, in its popular form, "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."

I don't doubt for the second the relevance of literature to predicting conflict, but revealing what they are doing may be inviting people to game their statistics by, for example, generating fake demand for novels.