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


How can people most effectively talk to each other if they do not share a common first language?

In a fascinating lecture, Italian interlinguist Professor Federico Gobbo introduces us to a unique, but little known, phenomenon: the international language Esperanto.

The full citation for the lecture is:

Gobbo, Federico (2015) Interlinguïstiek, een vak voor meertaligheid. Interlingvistiko, fako por multlingvismo. Interlinguistics, a discipline for multilingualism. Oratie 532 van de Universiteit van Amsterdam. Uitgesproken bij de aanvaardiing van het ambt van bijzonder hoogleraar ‘Interlinguîstiek en Esperanto’ aan de faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen op vrijdag 13 maart 2015. Amsterdam: Vossiuspers UvA.

Read my review here.

Creative Communication

What creative methods of research communication can help scholars get their message ‘out there’ effectively? In Creative Research Communication: Theory and Practice, Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp offer a new guide which will be accessible to researchers working across the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences. Wilkinson and Weitkamp successfully blend the theoretical and the practical in an approachable manner in an excellent book full of interesting and relevant content for academics and non-academics alike.

Click here to see my complete review in LSE Review of Books.