There is a movement afoot in social sciences. It’s called Social Physics (also called Digital Sociology). Social sciences long accused to be “more art than science” are using big data to settle the old-age argument of nature vs nurture.
Let’s set the stage here. Both natural and social sciences have undergone great advances in last 100+ years.
In 1911 an American geneticist Alfred Sturtevant created the first gene map of Drosophila (fruit fly), published a few years lated in the Journal of Experimental Zoology (1913). This work was later recognized through National Medal of Science (1967). What followed them is a revolution. In 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double-helical structure of human DNA molecule, for which they received a Nobel Prize in 1962. Following that in mid-1970’s Frederick Sanger developed a techniques to sequence our DNA and he too received a Nobel Prize in 1980. In 1988, US Congress funded research that ultimately resulted in a 2001 publication of the Human Genome Project (HGP) providing an almost complete sequence of the human genome. This gene mapping allows us to understand a variety of information about any person including their ancestry, likelihood of genetic diseases, identification of risk genes, and even the ability to predict how a person will respond to specific medication. This same science is now advancing into area of gene therapy. Just imagine being able to cure cancer by altering malignant cells on genetic level (changing their DNA sequence).
In 1842 a Belgian social statistician Adolphe Quetelet used the idea of “social physics” in a publications entitled “A Treatise On Man” where he used local population data to statistically derive “the average man”. This work influenced the first “philosopher of science” Auguste Comte (commonly known as the father of Sociology) who in 1848 published a three-volume work entitled “A General View of Positivism”. These ideas spread through Karl Marx, Max Webber, and David Émile Durkheim’s (considered early architects of social science) into economy and society. I’m afraid that what follows is not as illustrious as books and nobel prizes I listed above for gene mapping. Rather, the history of social physics is marginally contained in history of the greater sociology. That is the case until quite recently. Social physics differentiation is the concreteness of its data. As human behaviour moved to digital devices, social scientists and physicist finally had untainted empirical method of measuring our life. This mass of information, nicknamed ‘big data’, is now used on both a micro level (e.g. small commerce website understanding user paths through their website) and marco level (e.g. Google targeting and offering ads.
The Game Changer: Big Data
For years sociology was considered a form of art rather than a science. Scientists mocked the imprecise practices of social research comparing to the superior methods of empirical scientific research. That’s until the big data came in. Finally sociology has access to vast amounts of information and a more empirical way to understand human behaviour. Big data allows us to quantify, understand, and therefore predict human behaviour. This movement also provided something else sociology never had: human behaviour formulas mainly in a form of data-based algorithms. They are not as simple as Einstein’s famous E=mc2 but they are very effective at predicting human behaviour. For example:
- Devavrat Shah from MIT recently developed a non-paremetric approach predicted within 95% accuracy whether a specific Twitter post will be deemed popular and trend http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2012/predicting-twitter-trending-topics-1101
- Another MIT scientist Alex Pentland recently finished an experiment measuring work behaviour in workplaces using sociometric badges that track a variety of human behaviours and interactions http://www.newyorker.com/books/joshua-rothman/big-data-comes-to-the-office
- Facebook’s much publicized and criticized “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks” studying emotional cognition in social media http://www.pnas.org/content/111/24/8788.full
The Next Challenge
Here we come for a landing. Which science is proving to be more useful? Is it the natural sciences based on biology and chemistry predicting the path of humanity based on the vast DNA information? Or is it the new social physics fuelled by big data? To what extent is nature or nurture having a bigger impact on our personal life? More than understanding who we are right now, which of these sciences will be more successful in shaping who we will become tomorrow? That’s the thing! Nobody has ever connected the two sets of data to understand its interactions, dependencies, impacts and to ultimately be able to answer this question.
That is the challenge I set before us all. Be the first to connect the two: the nature (DNA) and nurture (big data). Learn not only what makes us human right now but also what is more capable of evolving us into something better.
Picture Credit: Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvian_Man#mediaviewer/File:Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour.jpg