Previous month:
October 2019
Next month:
December 2019

8 posts from November 2019

Yes, Austin, there is such a thing as Social Physics

The work of Alex Pentland has been valuable to me, and I once carried a copy of his book Social Physics to a meeting of technology innovators, including Austin Fatheree. Most of the people in this meeting had degrees and experience in math, science and engineering. 

They were repelled by the idea of 'social physics.' They thought it was blasphemous to put the two words together! I have never been sure of their issue because their reaction was clearly emotional. I assume they saw physics as reliable and social interactions as unpredictable. And that is true, as this article by Hannah Fry wonderfully explains. 

The New Yorker: What Statistics Can and Can’t Tell Us About Ourselves, 2019-Sep-9, by Hannah Fry

... a Belgian astronomer and mathematician named Adolphe Quetelet analyzed the numbers and discovered a remarkable pattern.... 

He developed the idea of a “Social Physics,” and began to explore the possibility that human lives, like planets, had an underlying mechanistic trajectory. There’s something unsettling in the idea that, amid the vagaries of choice, chance, and circumstance, mathematics can tell us something about what it is to be human. Yet Quetelet’s overarching findings still stand: at some level, human life can be quantified and predicted. We can now forecast, with remarkable accuracy, the number of women in Germany who will choose to have a baby each year, the number of car accidents in Canada, the number of plane crashes across the Southern Hemisphere, even the number of people who will visit a New York City emergency room on a Friday evening.... 

[However, there] is so much that, on an individual level, we don’t know: why some people can smoke and avoid lung cancer; why one identical twin will remain healthy while the other develops a disease like A.L.S.; why some otherwise similar children flourish at school while others flounder. Despite the grand promises of Big Data, uncertainty remains so abundant that specific human lives remain boundlessly unpredictable. [Emphasis added.]