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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?

In attempting to benefit from lessons learned in the quantitative natural sciences, social science all too often borrows specific models, rather than the more fundamental style of reasoning by which those models were originally discovered and validated in their home domains. It could be argued, however, that in physics the validation of models is a much less important motivation for the quantitative treatment of strong data regularities than the discovery, navigation, and validation of _abstractions_ which carry quantitative consequences. In this talk I will argue -- with a few working examples -- that the methods of physics can be usefully applied to social phenomena in a way that transcends any models that arise from them.

The distinction between behavior and institutions, and the interactions between the two, offer some easy starting points where physicists can both contribute with familiar methods, and begin to enrich the frameworks of abstraction within which social dynamics are conceptualized. Abstracted theories of pure institutional process, unfortunately known as "zero-intelligence models", can not only enrich individual-based frameworks such as neoclassical micro-economic theory; they can provide better-focused questions about individual behavior as well. Strong abstractions such as dimensional analysis, which turn out to be fundamental to the interpretation of quantitative systems, can take on new dimensions where they are found to apply in the social domain. I will show how dimensional analysis and zero-intelligence modeling of financial markets have enabled us to identify quite strong data regularities that are not tied to behavior, and thereby to isolate other strong regularities which can be targets of either focused behavioral science, or perhaps of richer abstractions of information flow mediated by market institutions.