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HONR 204D-01H: Science & Society
Spring 2018: TuTh 11:30-12:45
103 Crown Center

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

"What I cannot create, I do not understand." 
  Physicist Richard Feynman

Dr. Jim Larson

Last Site Update: 12.11.2018

OVERVIEW.  Computer simulations have long been employed to understand and predict the natural world.  The simulations 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.

Students in this course have in the past developed simulations on a wide range of topics, including:
  • Destigmatization:  The Conditions Necessary for Reducing Prejudice
  • Dynamic Social Impact:  How Geographic Attitude Patterns Emerge
  • Ethnocentrism:  The Evolution of Ingroup Favoritism
  • Group Formation:  The Importance of Reciprocity and Transitivity
  • Honor Cultures:  Controlling Aggression When the Rule of Law is Weak
  • International Cooperation:  How it is Gained and Lost
  • Marriage & Divorce:  Homophilic Trait-Matching Yields Population Marriage Rate Trends
  • Mate Selection:  Why People Date Others of Similar Attractiveness
  • Memory:  Group Interaction Can Inhibit Recall
  • Persuasion in Small Groups:  How an Opinion Minority can Convince the Majority
  • Brainstorming:  The Hazards of thought Entrainment in Interacting Groups
Each of these topics is concerned in one way or another with patterns of interaction among people that unfold over time, with each separate interaction influenced by the interactions that preceded it, and in turn influencing those that follow.  However, it is difficult to fully understand and make predictions about such complex phenomena with traditional "snapshot" theories of behavior.  What is needed instead is a more dynamic approach to expressing theory—one that takes into account the temporal interdependence of interactions, and that allows predictions to be made about what will happen when many people interact repeatedly with one another over time.  Computer simulation is an ideal way to accomplish this.

This course will be run as a hands-on laboratory that teaches some of 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 where 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 have had little or no coding experience before enrolling, and none have had any prior experience with the particular programming language (NetLogo) we use to create the simulations.  Rather, they all learned the rudiments of that language during the first half of the semester, and then spent the second half working in 2-person teams to build 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 useful ways during the second half of the semester in order to get the computer to do what you want it to do as you systematically construct your simulation.

WHO WILL BENEFIT MOST FROM THIS COURSE?  This course will be of greatest interest to Honors students majoring in one of the social sciences (e.g., anthropology, economics, 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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