Friday, October 17, 2014

#1182: William Strauss & Neil Howe

William Strauss

Pseudoscience presented as bullshit; no more, no less. But the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe is nevertheless taken rather seriously by many across the political spectrum. Their basic idea is that society turns on a repeating set of four 20-year cycles, and by identifying these cycles they purport to be able to tell the future. It really isn’t much better supported by actual evidence than crystal ball gazing, but since their theory can be used, like crystal ball gazing, to make people hear what they want to hear it hasn’t been particularly hard to get people to listen. For some, Strauss and Howe seem to promise a reaction to the current climate of social change back to the social conservatism of the 40s. For others, they seem to promise a change out of Reagan-Bush economics and back to the Keynesian economics of the 40s – or whatever else you may want to hear. As true fortune tellers, Strauss and Howe’s predictions are complete with a soon upcoming Big Crisis – a prediction based not on structural features of the present, but on quasi-religious fatalism based on the mythos magic of transcendent cycles. And the signs are everywhere – in politics, economics, and even culture; the very topics of Hollywood blockbusters are taken to support their woo.  

Neil Howe
But good grief were their bullshit not popular, particularly in the 90s. The media loved them and their “insights” on Baby Boomers and Generation X, and their books, Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (1997), were apparently highly popular. Their work, including their marvelously selective use and interpretation of evidence to fit their theory, is discussed here (a more professionally dry review here). In fact, the Strauss-Howe version isn’t much different from other, famous historical figures who have constructed teleological interpretations of history based on recognizing patterns that fit their narrative.

Now, as a matter of fact, Strauss has recently wandered off and died, and is thus technically disqualified from an entry in our Encyclopedia, but Howe seems to be around still, so we couldn’t really skip this pair either.

Diagnosis: Amazing pseudoscience bullshit, the kind that would pass as profound in the English classes at an unaccredited fundie institution (or any institution promoted by Norm Shealy). It’s rather sad and exasperating that they get away with this kind of silliness, but so they seem to do.

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