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Is There a Physics of Society? January 10-12, 2008, Santa Fe NM

Organizers: Michelle Girvan (University of Maryland) and Aaron Clauset (Santa Fe Institute)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

9:50 - 10:30 D. Eric Smith (homepage)

Good social science as good physics?

The social sciences – the so-called "softer" sciences – have never matched the precision, and especially the predictive power, of the "harder" physical sciences. This can be explained, perhaps, by the tremendous psychological complexity of individual people relative to the simple regularities of the matter (atoms, molecules, etc.) making up physical systems. The existence of minds, individual free will and our unparalleled capacity for reason seem to beset the social sciences with particular difficulties. Consequently, as many social scientists and philosophers have argued, the social and physical sciences seem to be essentially different, and, perhaps, must always remain so.

Nevertheless, research over the past two or three decades suggests that this conclusion is certainly premature and quite probably mistaken; that social science can indeed be done along the lines of physical science, and that something akin to a "social physics" may be possible. Success requires several components. First, social physics requries a sound, empirically-rooted picture of the typical behaviors of individual people, grounded in biology. Second, it must exploit analytical and computational tools to explore the kinds of collective patterns and phenomena likely to emerge when many people interact with one another. Third, and perhaps most importantly, it must test theoretical insight (from agent-based models, etc) against empirical reality at the collective level with hard data.

I will review recent empirical work in social psychology, experimental economics and evolutionary psychology which suggests that while people are indeed sometimes complex, their behavior as individuals is often surprisingly simple. This suggests that the real root of complexity in the social world is often not individual human complexity, but collective complexity that emerges spontaneously out of the interactions of many people. I will also review a number of computational efforts to model and understand the nature of these emergent collective patterns. All of this work, which grounds the study of social reality in the biological and computational sciences, promises a new and much more powerful social science – perhaps even deserving the name "social physics" -- in the near future. (However, from experience, it seems to me the term "social physics" often leads to serious misunderstandings and is probably best avoided.)