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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


I've been thinking a lot about this issue, especially after reading Stanley Fish's explanation of deconstructionism in April 6th New York Times.

I'm not sure it's the fault of the social sciences that they seem to be having trouble harnessing the "discursive methods" used by the natural sciences, as I think that philosophy of examining the world is of limited utility when it comes to human behavior. As a speech pathologist I often take data on behavior, but there’s a deep, secret part of me that suspects this data is hopelessly reductionist. So a child correctly uses the regular past tense form for 80% of opportunities in a therapy session. Does this indicate anything meaningful about something as entropic as “functional language”, these data points on a handful of syntactic forms?

I’m sure you could say I could be much smarter in choosing what I take data on or in my methods of analysis, but I’m inclined to think that this exposes the limits of what can be studied empirically. I see a big push to empirically measure everything in the “No Child Left Behind” era (the buzz words being “evidenced based practice” and “response to intervention”). Educators have identified tons of “measurable” behaviors which they cheerfully collect data on, and they’re satisfied that their students are “making progress” because their scores on measures of “reading fluency” and such go up. It remains to be seen, though, that this really means a whole lot in terms of improved reading comprehension (beyond answering the most concrete questions of fact) and writing ability.

Which brings me to the deconstructionists’ point, that science is an approximation of knowing which is better suited to some circumstances than others. Because Fish explains this better than I ever could, here’s what he says:

“The solution to the problem in the rationalist tradition was to extend man’s reasoning powers in order to produce finer and finer descriptions of the natural world, descriptions whose precision could be enhanced by technological innovations (telescopes, microscopes, atom smashers, computers) that were themselves extensions of man’s rational capacities. The vision was one of a steady progress with the final result to be a complete and accurate — down to the last detail — account of natural processes. Francis Bacon, often thought of as the originator of the project, believed in the early 17th century that it could be done in six generations.

“It was Bacon who saw early on that the danger to the project was located in its middle term — the descriptions and experiments that were to be a window on the reality they were trying to capture…

“Both the “I” or the knower, and the world that is to be known, are themselves not themselves, but the unstable products of mediation, of the very discursive, linguistic forms that in the rationalist tradition are regarded as merely secondary and instrumental... The Cartesian trick of starting from the beginning and thinking things down to the ground can’t be managed because the engine of thought, consciousness itself, is inscribed (written) by discursive forms which “it” (in quotation marks because consciousness absent inscription is empty and therefore non-existent) did not originate and cannot step to the side of no matter how minimalist it goes. In short (and this is the kind of formulation that drives the enemies of French theory crazy), what we think with thinks us.”

I think that deconstructionists were right in the sense that science is a narrative. It’s a way of talking about things, and there are certain things that defy being talked about in the language of science or become hopelessly deformed by it. Physics ok. Poetry definitely not. Language… I make a living based on the pretext that it can, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a masters in literature.

Anyway, nice blog Aaron.

Posted by: Anonymous at April 8, 2008 08:25 PM

You yourself do fraud research.

Scaling and networks...to me you guys are incompetent
in math skills.

Posted by: Anonymous at April 19, 2008 03:23 AM

Were it only true that doing good research simply required having muscular math skills.

Posted by: Aaron at April 21, 2008 11:04 AM

I'd like to say that the intuition which can be described that having good sense to physical picture is more important than math skill, though training by math skill is best way to get it.

Posted by: Feng at May 1, 2008 03:57 PM

Of course, but what do you think about that?,

Posted by: Sindrug at May 4, 2008 05:32 PM