I have always been fond of the comic-book character Reed Richards, aka “Mr. Fantastic”. If you haven’t encountered the character before, his superpower is actually rather secondary to his appeal as a character. (He can stretch his rubbery body, a power that is normally associated with humorous characters in comics.) The character is more defined by his personality and outlook: he is a classic absent-minded professor, an egghead, a supremely gifted but often otherworldly scientist. He’s basically the kind of pop-culture scientist who would show up in fifties and sixties monster movies, smoking a pipe and Nobel-prize brilliant in all possible scientific disciplines from physics to engineering to biology.
This has something to do with my (and many other readers’) disenchantment with the current comic-book series Civil War, in which Reed Richards is basically acting more like a villainous mad scientist, in defiance of about forty years of storytelling. I’d second the core complaint that it’s a story in which characters are being made to do whatever the plot idea requires them to do, without much thought being given to the why and wherefore. This leaves later writers to clean up the mess. In the case of Reed Richards, the first pass at explaining his actions was frankly stupid and unconvincing (that he had an uncle who was persecuted by Joe McCarthy, which taught young Reed that one should always slavishly obey one’s government). The second pass made more sense in terms of the character: that Reed Richards has been experimenting with Asimov-style psychohistory (rather than psychohistory in the psychoanalytic sense), and has discovered that the government’s attempt to control superpowered humans is preferable in its long-term consequences to a failure to do so, however difficult the short-term problems might seem.
This is all a roundabout way, via comics geekery, to raise the topic of psychohistory as Asimov described it. When I was a kid, I found it implausible in a way I couldn’t fully think through, even if Asimov did some fun things with the concept in fictional terms. Seen historiographically, it has some obvious links to the real-world hubris of modernization theory and some of the headier claims made in the 1960s that history would become more scientific through the extensive use of cliometrics. In the context of the times, you can sympathize with an author like Asimov clearly hoping for or even vaguely believing that his fictional vision might eventually become real in some respect. Even so, in the original Foundation trilogy, he eventually introduced a hidden group of telepathic humans who helped to control individual actions so that they continued to conform with Hari Seldon’s psychohistorical plan for a future galactic society.
I do still run into scholars and intellectuals, some natural scientists and others social scientists, who have affection for Asimov’s idea of psychohistory, and a few who even still think that something like it is highly possible. This really bugs me, just as the portrayal of Reed Richards bugs me. It’s partly because quite aside from questions of truth and plausibility, psychohistory is an imaginative effluvia of the authoritarianism of high modernist planning. It comes out of that moment where some intellectuals and officials really believed they could design the future and have human beings predictably align themselves with their grand visions. Hari Seldon is a science-fictional Le Corbusier. When Asimov wrote Foundation, you couldn’t blame him for clinging to a heroic vision of lone-genius-designs-the-future, but when I meet someone today who still seems misty-eyed about the idea, it gives me the creeps. It’s annoying even coming from a fictional character like Reed Richards. If the guy is a brilliant cutting-edge scientist (even of the comic-book kind), then he shouldn’t be scribbling equations on the wall that allegedly demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt what the future holds. He should know that complex emergent systems (which surely human society in the real world is, and equally surely a fictional human society with mutants who have powers that range from having sticky frog tongues to making suns go supernova would be) can only be described much more tentatively and probabilistically.