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HONR 204D-01H: Science & Society
Spring 2018: TuTh 1:00-2:15
105 Crown Center

Simulation in Social Science:
The Computer as a Tool for Theory Building

"What I cannot create, I do not understand." 
  Physicist Richard Feynman
"Our truth is the intersection of independent lies."   Biologist Richard Levins

Dr. Jim Larson

Last Site Update: 1.11.2018

OVERVIEW.  Computer simulations have long been employed to understand and predicting the natural world.  The computer models used to generate weather forecasts are a familiar example.  Increasingly, scientists are also now beginning to use computer simulations to study a wide range of questions about complex human behavior.  Learning how to create such simulations is the focus of this course.

Past students in this course have developed simulations on a range of topics, including:

  • Mate Selection:   Why People Date Others of Similar Attractiveness
  • Memory:  How Group Interaction Can Inhibit Recall
  • Honor Cultures:  Controlling Aggression When the Rule of Law is Weak
  • Dynamic Social Impact:  How the Geography of Attitudes Emerges
  • Ethnocentrism:  The Evolution of Ingroup Favoritism
  • Group Formation:  The Importance of Reciprocity and Transitivity
  • Persuasion in Small Groups:  Convincing the Majority When Holding a Minority Opinion
  • Destigmatization:  The Conditions Necessary for Reducing Prejudice

  • Each of these topics is concerned in one way or another with patterns of interaction among people that unfold over time, with each individual interaction influenced by the interactions that preceded it, and in turn influencing those that follow.  However, it is difficult to fulling understand and make predictions about such complex phenomena with traditional, static, "snapshot" theories of behavior.  What is needed instead is a more dynamic approach to expressing theory—one that takes into account the temporal connectedness of interaction, and so allow predictions to be made about what will happen when people interact repeatedly over time with many other people.  Computer simulation is an ideal way to accomplish this.

    This course will be run as a hands-on laboratory that teaches the "nuts and bolts" of computer simulation as it applies to human social behavior.  It will emphasize the use of simulations to (a) express theory about social behavior, and (b) derive predictions about social phenomena—which are obtained by actually running the simulation—that would be difficult or impossible to derive in any other way.

    This is not a course in robotics.  Nor is it a courses in animated film making.  It is instead a course in which you will learn to develop simulations that are capable of generating sensible, human-like behavior that is not directly written into the simulation's code.  Such behavior is best described as an emergent phenomenon that arises from the complex interaction among the behavioral rules that are written into code.

    PRIOR PROGRAMMING/CODING EXPERIENCE IS HELPFUL, BUT NOT REQUIRED.  Most students who have taken this course in the past have had little or no coding experience before enrolling, and none have had any prior experience with the particular programming language (NetLogo) that they used to create their simulations.  Rather, they all learned that language during the first half of the semester, and then spent the second half working in 2-person teams to building a simulation on a topic that they chose from among a set of alternatives provided by the instructor.  Developing a working simulation in this course is a creative, problem-solving process—figuring out how the various building blocks of the programming language learned during the first half of the semester can be put together in novel, creative ways in order to get the computer to do what you want it to do as you systematically construct your simulations during the second half of the semester.

    WHO WILL BENEFIT MOST FROM THIS COURSE?  This course will be of greatest interest to Honors students majoring in one of the social sciences (especially anthropology, political science, psychology, and sociology), and to anyone else with a strong social science background.  If you are unsure about whether or not this course is right for you, click here

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