Sep 28, 2012

The Social Sciences Revolution

Posted by in categories: biological, complex systems, economics, geopolitics, philosophy, policy

Scientific discovery in the natural sciences has proceeded at an exponential rate and we are now seeing the social sciences experience a profound transformation as a consequence of computational social science. How far computational social science will reinvent social science is the big question. Some of the themes I’ve explored in my own work have been about the relationship between political philosophy and science and whether the computational sciences can help formulate new conceptions of societal organisation. Many in the field seem to think so.

These three things—a biological hurricane, computational social science, and the rediscovery of experimentation—are going to change the social sciences in the 21st century. With that change will come, in my judgment, a variety of discoveries and opportunities that offer tremendous prospect for improving the human condition. It’s one thing to say that the way in which we study our object of inquiry, namely humans, is undergoing profound change, as I think it is. The social sciences are indeed changing. But the next question is: is the object of inquiry also undergoing profound change? It’s not just how we study it that’s changing, which it is. The question is: is the thing itself, our humanity, also changing? (Nicholas A. Christakis, A NEW KIND OF SOCIAL SCIENCE FOR THE 21st CENTURY)

A biological understanding of human nature combined with new insights derived from computational social science can potentially revolutionise political, social and economic systems. Consequently there are profound philosophical implications. Secular political philosophy specifically emerged out of the European experience of Church and monarchical rule, and socialism emerged out of the experience of industrialisation and capitalist ideology. Therefore is it possible that a new political philosophy could emerge out of the reinvention of the social sciences?

One question that fascinated me in the last two years is, can we ever use data to control systems? Could we go as far as, not only describe and quantify and mathematically formulate and perhaps predict the behavior of a system, but could you use this knowledge to be able to control a complex system, to control a social system, to control an economic system? (Albert-lászló Barabási, THINKING IN NETWORK TERMS)

With Big Data we can now begin to actually look at the details of social interaction and how those play out, and are no longer limited to averages like market indices or election results. This is an astounding change. The ability to see the details of the market, of political revolutions, and to be able to predict and control them is definitely a case of Promethean fire — it could be used for good or for ill, and so Big data brings us to interesting times. We’re going to end up reinventing what it means to have a human society. (Alex (Sandy) Pentland, REINVENTING SOCIETY IN THE WAKE OF BIG DATA)

Edge has an excellent discussion exploring computational social science and how it could transform humanity. One of the exciting challenges I see will be to integrate the exponential discoveries in the natural sciences with the social sciences, and to truly build a civilisation upon rationality.


Comments — comments are now closed.

  1. GaryChurch says:

    This is great stuff, thank you so much for the link to Edge.
    Regards, Gary

  2. Farooq Khan, great post. Let me attempt to provide a direction to 2 of your questions.

    First some background.

    I was an early big data person. In 1982 when I was working on my (University of Lancaster) Master of Operations Research thesis I crashed the Manchester (or was it Liverpool? I forget which now) University ICL mainframe because I had submitted more distribution model jobs than the mainframe could handle. That is when ‘they’ found the bug in this George 1904S operating system – when the task buffer filled up the operating system would simply discard the first job in, to make space for the last job just entered. Sound funny now, but the department came down hard on me and I nearly lost my place in this OR program.

    My experience building huge data models includes my (University College Dublin) Master of Finance 500 page thesis which is based on 2,000 years of daily share prices from 9 stock exchanges around the world) and multi-million data point models of photon structure.

    1. “… only describe and quantify and mathematically formulate … ”

    I can say this, some problems even if they can be formulated analytically, don’t have solutions i.e. cannot be solved. The role of big data will provide direction as to how to formulate human behavior analytically, but that does not mean that the equations can be solved.

    Further, in spite of well-established economic theories, we still had the Wall St. crash of 2008. It was so unexpected, and being in the industry I can say this, that the untempered pursuit of profits, ideas and strategies that would have been considered irrational 10 years ago had come to be considered rational. Which raises the question can ‘rational’ be time varying. If so it adds to the complexity of this problem.

    That means that even though mathematical theories on human behavior can become very sophisticated they can still provide wrong answers.

    In finance there is a nice term “regime change”. This term means that the market behavior has changed so much so quickly that existing market models don’t give the right answers, and so models need to the ‘recalibrated’ to match the ‘new normal’ of market behavior.

    My personal opinion of ‘regime change’ and ‘new normal’ is that these are symptomatic of fundamental flaws in these models. And again these models tend to be ‘analytical’ in nature and as stated earlier some analytical models do not have solutions.

    And if I am correct (I stopped reading this subject several years ago) economic game theory is very much based on the assumption that all participants are equal. This is not how society works. And that the problems become very difficult to solve when one breaks this axiom. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Not having analytical solutions can be a big stumbling block for the ‘new’ social sciences.

    2. “ … Big Data we can now begin to actually look at the details of social interaction …”

    Let me point to issues that I have had to work with in modeling human behavior / market forces.

    Lags/leads: Forester’s pioneered systems dynamics, that there are lagged and leading feedback and feed forward loops. This is especially true in the economy, for example the 3-month Treasury interest rates are affected by what happened in the economy 15-years ago.

    Data loss: And sometimes there major data losses. The Fed stopped publishing M3 which is so important to modeling 3-month treasury rates.

    Short shelf life: Sure we can look at details but can that be helpful. I did a study for a former employer and we found that FICO score are not good predictors of defaults in the long run. They seem to work within a multi-month time frame but not on a multi-year time frame.

    And finally I must disagree “to truly build a civilisation upon rationality”. We are inherently irrational, and have different ideas of ‘rationality’ that is why the economic markets work. If we all had the same idea of ‘rational’ we would all be on the buy side or on the sell side at the same time. That is not the case.

    But it is a nice ideal to navigate towards a ‘new’ civilization, and new economic theories.

  3. GaryChurch says:

    “We are inherently irrational“
    You are anyway.
    You know, when you comment, it makes me regret my name being anywhere yours is. But since this is not my post I cannot edit it. This is how you and Mad Otto have killed this blog. People do not want to be associated with idiots.

  4. CA says:

    One step further in a more political direction:
    Y. Rumpala, Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project, 21st Century Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2009,…y-Society1