Tuesday, November 11, 2003

A physics of society?

physics > statistical > human societies
"From theories of pedestrian movement and traffic flow to voting processes, economic markets and war, researchers are striving towards a physics of society...
...To many physicists, the social sciences are a treasure trove of complex systems, for which there often exists mountains of data and next to no theory. They regard society as a fabulous experiment (although economists sometimes complain that the things that "econophysicists" want to do are simply not interesting). The aim of social sciences, however, has never really been just to understand, but to improve. Social science is often regarded as an adjunct and guide to policy-making. From Thomas Hobbes to Karl Marx, moral and political philosophers have used their ideas about the way society works to argue for ways of making it better. The trouble is, of course, that they seldom agree..."

This prospect I find thrilling as a physicist and it seems interesting enough as an ongoing project. What I worry about is the further pseudo-scientification of political decisions disguised as "natural laws", something that economists are already doing today anyway.
But can it work? Can a physics of society make any actual and meaningful predictions, or would such highly non-linear systems as those that constitute the engines and processes of society and its economics be as immune to detailed analysis as most naturally occuring dynamical system are? And if we can't develop a long-term predictive discipline, might these methods be able to develop a qualitative study, a coarse grained model of society? It doesn't seem too far-fetched. Thus we might never know the "societal weather" over the next few months or years, but we just might be able to describe the probable "social climate".
But what if this knowledge is used to push society towards abominable ends, what if this develops into literal social engineering? Well there are no assurances, but I seriously doubt that this is indeed such a powerful tool: again, think of how much control we have over the weather or the climate despite the advances in meteorology and climatology!

The conclusion of the article is worth quoting as it is applicable to any kind of societal study:

A physics of society cannot tell us how things should be, but it can hopefully elucidate the consequences of particular choices and policies. Physicists would be right to be wary of constructing a "utopia theory", but historian Richard Olson explains the role social physics could serve: "One way of expressing the relationship between physical and moral laws... is to say that social systems are 'softly' deterministic. Left alone, they will inevitably develop along certain lines; but the possibility of changing those lines by conscious and intentional intervention does exist. The whole point of a 'social science', then, is to explore the opportunities for and likely consequences of intentional moral action. Without the science, morality is blind; but without the morality, science is useless, pointless, and paralytic."

And, yes, sci-fi buffs might be reminded of Asimov's "Foundation" series' psychohistory...

via missing matter

No comments: