Social Physics: A New Science

Pentland, A. (2014) Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread  – the Lessons from a New Science

Alex Pentland’s book is a hugely readable introduction to “social physics”, which the author defines “as a quantitative social science that describes reliable, mathematical connections between information and idea flow on the one hand and people’s behaviour on the other”. In contradistinction to what the author defines as conventional “individual-centric economic and policy thinking”, Pentland suggests that the primary drivers of cultural evolution in our wired world are “social learning” and “social pressure”.

Pentland entertainingly describes a range of studies which he and colleagues have conducted that are both interesting and counterintuitive. He shows, for example, how equal “conversational turn-taking” is the most important factor in predicting “group intelligence”. Other studies focus on trading and the determinants of political opinion. Indeed, there seems to be nothing which is outside of the purview of social physics.

But Pentland’s enthusiasm for his subject carries an overtone of hubris. For Pentland, constructs like “market”, “class” and “capital” should be replaced by the concepts he outlines in the book. Moreover, he gives a very partial interpretation of history since the Enlightenment, which is puzzling because he simultaneously extols the virtues of Adam Smith and John Locke while suggesting that conventional economic concepts are redundant.

In order to gain a more nuanced view of what drives cultural, social and economic evolution, my advice would be to imagine Pentland in a dialogue with economists, historians, sociologists and philosophers and then to form your own view of the truth of the claims made in this book.

Review originally published in Reviews. Significance, 12:6 45. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2015.00871.x