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March 28, 2008

Is there a Physics of Society, redux

As I mentioned before, it's unlikely that I'll end up posting anything in depth about my thoughts about the Physics of Society workshop I ran back in January. On the other hand, I've been sitting on a couple of things related to a physics of society, so here they are.

Andrew Gelman (Statistics and Political Science at Columbia U.) has a nice critique about the trouble with social sciences that he's put under the pithy heading of "Thou shalt not sit with statisticians nor commit a social science". I admit that I'm deeply sympathetic to these criticisms, at least partially because in spite of a lot of effort, and a lot of writing, the social sciences don't appear to have produced much. Of course, there are lots of plausible explanations for this, including the usual refrain that social sciences are much harder than the natural sciences because humans are wily creatures, culture changes over time but has a huge influence on human behavior, and even 10^9 humans is nothing compared to the 10^20s of particles statistical physicists often consider. Another explanation that was mentioned at my workshop by Carter Butts is that relative to the natural sciences, the social sciences are drastically under-funded and under-staffed. One of my personal suspicions, however, is that social science has been hindered by a lack of good data by which to actually test the theories social scientists kick around. This kind of empirical vacuum can encourage researchers to develop all sorts of bad habits, and physicists interesting in social science topics (e.g., opinion dynamics) are by no means immunized against these by nature of the physics training.

This summer, Dirk Helbing and colleagues are running a workshop on the future of quantitative sociology; held in Zurich August 18-23, which looks quite interesting. (Frank Schweitzer is another of the organizers, and on the first night of my workshop, Frank told me about a similar meeting on sociophysics that he helped organize back in 2002.) Dirk is an exception among physicists working on sociological questions, as he actually conducts controlled experiments on human traffic behavior in his laboratory. These have produced some very nice results, and developed some nice connections with turbulent flows. But, there are a host of other sociological questions that have, for the most part, remained wholly inaccessible to controlled experimentation. Matt Salganik's presentation about his experimental work using an online environment got me very excited about the possibility that computer technology can help solve some of the tricky problems with social influence, framing effects, etc. that usually make experiments in this area inconclusive. Another interesting possibility is behavioral economics (which ETH Zurich is strong in). That is, perhaps by adapting techniques from these experiments, we can better understand, for instance, the roles that imitation and homophily play in the way humans modify their behavior in social settings.

Naturally, the interest in controlled experiments or in physics-style modeling of social phenomena is not new, and sociologists have been arguing over how best to study social behavior for more than 100 years. The recent interest by physicists in social phenomena may, in part, be explainable by the massive amounts of electronically collected data now available. Sociologists seem to have noticed too, to some degree. For instance, a lengthy article by Emirbayer from 1997 in the American Journal of Sociology criticizes sociology's tendency to focus on static or inherent properties of people rather than on the dynamic or process-based emphasis that appeals more to physicists. At the workshop, John M. Roberts gave a nice presentation of the historical interactions between physics and sociology, but pointed out that usually sociolgists' interest in dynamic or process-based models didn't last more than a few years each time it cropped up, possibly because sociologists often relied on metaphorical models (e.g., thinking of the social equivalents of "heat" or "leverage") that ultimately didn't help them make any real predictions. From my point of view, if this revival of interest in dynamic and quantitative models of social behavior is to turn into real scientific progress, then I think the key is going to be better testing of models with data. It's easy (and fun!) to do math, but it's not science until there's a meaningful comparison with real data.

posted March 28, 2008 08:40 AM in Scientifically Speaking | permalink | Comments (5)

Food for thought (2)

This is an exceptionally well done piece of grass-roots boosterism for Obama. Also, his speech was pretty good. Back in February, I went to both a Clinton rally and an Obama rally. Obama was a significantly better orator than Clinton, for sure.

posted March 28, 2008 08:33 AM in Political Wonk | permalink | Comments (0)