A Brief Taste of Social Science

This news item from Stanford University reminds your Curmudgeon why he’s never been interested in the social sciences: Suffering of the poor may have helped societies with class structures spread across the globe, say Stanford researchers. A few excerpts will give you the general idea. The bold font was added by us:

Why do most cultures have a class structure – rich, poor and sometimes middle – instead of being egalitarian, with resources shared equally by everyone?

We’ll take a guess. Hey, Stanford guys: Maybe it’s because living in a commune is just flat-out stupid, because it doesn’t encourage individual accomplishment. We once wrote about the communal society established by the Mayflower Pilgrims in 1620: Of Plymouth Plantation: “Every Man for His Own Particular”. Well, what do we know? Let’s read on:

According to Stanford University researchers, it is the very inequities of the class structure that appear to have been behind the spread of those societies and the displacement of more egalitarian cultures during the early era of human civilization.

What? The “inequities of the class structure” caused the spread of those societies? They have research to show that? We continue:

The researchers used a computer simulation to compare demographic stability and rates of migration for both egalitarian and unequal societies. They found that class structure provided unequal access to resources, thereby contributing a destabilizing effect on the population, and driving migration and the expansion of stratified societies.


Feldman [Marcus Feldman, an evolutionary biologist at Stanford] and his colleagues determined that when resources were consistently scarce, egalitarian societies – which shared the deprivation equally throughout the population – remained more stable than stratified societies. In stratified societies, the destabilizing effect of unequal sharing of scarce resources gave those societies more incentive to migrate in search of added resources.

Did their computer model factor in the individual’s incentive in a “stratified society” to do some work, knowing that the fruits of his labor would be his — and wouldn’t belong to everyone else? The article doesn’t say, but we can guess. Here’s more:

Many possible causes for the development of socioeconomic inequality have been proposed by scientists, such as a need for hierarchical control over crop irrigation systems, or the compounding of small differences in individual wealth over time through inheritance.

Yes! Steve Jobs is richer than you because he controls the irrigation system! Moving along:

“This is not just an academic exercise,” Rogers said. “Inequalities in socioeconomic status are increasing sharply around the world. Understanding the causes and consequences of inequality and how to reduce it is one of the central challenges of our time.

It might help if at least one of those researchers had taken Economics 101 at some point in his educational career. Okay, we won’t rant. Maybe these guys are smarter than we think they are. They could looking for cabinet level jobs in the second Obama administration.

See also: Another Brief Taste of Social Science.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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53 responses to “A Brief Taste of Social Science

  1. Sorry, SC. Methinks you have rushed to judgement too soon.You might want to take a look at these correlations before you decide that there is only one right economic system in the financial playbook.

    I don’t mean to use this link as a promo for my site but the graphs I’ve posted are important; unfortunately, they are available only behind a pay wall.

    This data is not socially engineered data to support some terrible economic bias that you seem to feel is inherent in anything tainted by socialism but clear evidence that economic inequality really does foster far more than the presumed benefits you believe naturally and exclusively accrue only from a competitive economic system. There really is a flip side to the inevitable stratified results you warmly endorse that really does yield a rather disruptive and destabilizing influence in our societies… an influence, to use but one example, that fuels such anti-science, anti-intellectual faith-based belief as creationism. I would think that might interest you enough to re-examine your economic assumptions and take into account ALL the data in your cost/benefit analysis.

  2. tildeb says: “Sorry, SC. Methinks you have rushed to judgement too soon.”

    I didn’t waste any time, did I? But all I had to go on was that news story, and I didn’t ignore anything that was there. You’re right, however I didn’t study their data. If there’s a flip side that isn’t compulsory, that’s fine — for those who choose it. I don’t mind if some people want to form a commune and live that way. I just don’t want to be forced to join them.

  3. In social science, correlation is always causation, apparently.

    The only truly egalitarian societies of which I am aware are hunter-gatherers and Amish, Hutterites, and the like. In socialist and welfare states, there is still inequality–people who work for the government or have connections have access that people without do not, just as in more capitalist societies people with money have access that people without do not.

    From the abstract it appears this study is talking about small societies at the beginning of history; nomadic tribesmen vs the Sumerians or some such, hardly controversial. As usual it gets totally blown out of proportion by journalists. Whatever they are doing to simulate human societies is hardly very advance.

    As you can see from reading about their methods, the simulation was very crude.


    Each occupied site could produce so many resources. There is nothing in here about economic growth, no trade, no specialization–it’s as though every person is mining food, with each person needed exactly the same amount every year. It’s interesting to play with but the fidelity of its description of human societies seems minimal. It’s very like having a computer play “Age of Empires” with itself, but not as much fun to watch.

  4. Out of interest, Mr SC, what do you think of Open Source Software and the related movement?

  5. “Did their computer model factor in the individual’s incentive in a “stratified society” to do some work, knowing that the fruits of his labor would be his — and wouldn’t belong to everyone else? The article doesn’t say, but we can guess.”

    Nice to know that the many millions of Irish and Italians that emigrated to America merely had to work hard back home in Ireland and Italy to get ahead, and did not have to move to America to peruse their dreams.

  6. SC, I’m surprised at your reaction to this story. It seems the results fit in perfectly with free-market economics (as I understand it). People spread out when there are limited resources (whether limited by those in control or by geographic location). So far this has apparently worked for human society. The problem, as I see it, is that there are few places for people to spread out anymore.

    How will a stratified society respond to this? In many countries immigration is becoming more difficult as citizens realize their limited resources can do only so much for the existing population. Will we become more stratified? If there is no chance to “escape” and move on, how will those who would have moved respond to being “trapped”?

    Note: I don’t mean to comment and run, but I can’t check back until later (no time to read the sources for this post right now either). I’ve got a GRE exam tomorrow and I must study and practice.

  7. Lynn Wilhelm says: “I’ve got a GRE exam tomorrow and I must study and practice.”

    Break a leg.

  8. Now, now SC, if Lynn breaks her leg she’ll be in far too much pain to write the test.

  9. SC, I think you jumped to a conclusion, based on the word ‘Social’ no doubt, that doesn’t reflect what they were investigating.

    “Agent-based simulation results show that in constant environments, unequal access to resources can be demographically destabilizing, resulting in the outward migration and spread of such societies even when population size is relatively small. In variable environments, stratified societies spread more and are also better able to survive resource shortages by sequestering mortality in the lower classes.”


    The emphasis is mine.

  10. The so-called “social sciences” have become all too often little more than socialist social engineering sciences.

  11. Ummm…. where did you skeptics get your PhDs in social sciences from???

    Y’all are as bad as global warming and evolution deniers.

    (Like any science, it’s about trends in the peer-reviewed literature. C’mon!)

  12. LRA asks: “Ummm…. where did you skeptics get your PhDs in social sciences from???”

    Lemme see, it’s printed on the diploma … darn, I can’t find the thing. Oh well, I’ll print up another from Curmudgeon University.

  13. Some “scientific” terms and concepts from the article…

    suffering of the poor
    class structure
    egalitarian distribution of “resources”
    more egalitarian cultures
    inequities of the class structure

    Obviously these are all completely objective and well defined terms and concepts, no subjectivity involved. Because, of course, things like egalitarian distribution of resources and equality of class structure exist in nature where they can be studied and ultimately understood in terms of natural processes. Isn’t that right?

    I especially like when “social scientists” go on to prescribe remedies that should be implemented by government, because obviously that is objectively the best way to “solve” these “problems”.

    How could anyone be skeptical about any of this? It’s all very scientific.

  14. @Jack Hogan: I think your criticism is a little over the top.

    This *might* be a bad study (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0024683) or it might be a *good* one – I don’t know, because I haven’t spent the time needed to understand what it is saying. At a glance (a very short one), they are trying to answer a very specific question with a simulation model, applying a bit of game theory, and relating the results to observed findings. You know … sciency stuff.

    If you disagree with the conclusion, that is fine. However, blanket denigration of a whole field of inquiry simply because you don’t like what it is saying is hardly good criticism. As *LRA* notes, it is the typical behavior of the denialists. You can do better.

  15. @TA, it was intentionally over the top to make a point. I thought that was obvious.

    The study may or may not be good, or bad. It may or may not add to our knowledge and understanding.

    The terminology used and the concepts bandied about by “some” social scientists are often ill defined, subjective, politically charged, and based on agenda driven and subjective assumptions.

    I listed several terms and phrases in that article that prone to subjective definition.

    What exactly is “inequitable distribution of resources”? This presupposes there is a distribution of “resources” that could be objectively defined as an equitable. Is such a thing even possible? Is there some ideal “equitable” distribution? The use of the term “inequitable” is loaded with value judgment. Why not use the term “different” distributions of resources instead?

    Another such term is “hierarchical control”.

  16. Jack Hogan says:

    The terminology used and the concepts bandied about by “some” social scientists are often ill defined, subjective, politically charged, and based on agenda driven and subjective assumptions.

    Like the last sentence I quoted, which is why I posted about this thing:

    Understanding the causes and consequences of inequality and how to reduce it is one of the central challenges of our time.

    Pure, objective science.

  17. SC said: Pure, objective science

    Well, according to that respected and esteemed — silently and quietly in most quarters — social, political, and economic scientist, Karl Marx, why yes, of course it’s objective. It’s, you know, practically self evident.

    And if you are skeptical about this or, even worse, in denial, you may require reeducation. You are at great risk of starting to think just like a creationist, or something.

  18. Fine, dislike the study. Don’t denigrate the WHOLE FIELD.

  19. ps. Jack– there’s no such thing as “pure, objective” science. That’s a myth of logical positivism proportions.

  20. “You are at great risk of starting to think just like a creationist, or something.”

    No, actually. I’m at great risk of thinking like a woman who has a master’s degree in neuroscience from Columbia and a philosophy degree from Univ. of Texas who is pursuing an academic career in philosophy of science/ mind.

    So, there! 😛

  21. LRA says: “Fine, dislike the study. Don’t denigrate the WHOLE FIELD.”

    I don’t know the field. It’s like global warming, another subject I don’t know. But I can see when politicians are using the field to further their own agendae.

  22. Fine, criticize the study. To say that social science is socialism or to denigrate the whole field is silly.


  23. This particular study might be worthwhile, had these scientists not ridiculously overgeneralized the results of an extremely simplistic simulation.

    Did anyone besides me read the “Methods” section that I linked to? It worked like this:

    “Resource sites” produce undifferentiated “resources” and each simulated person needs an arbitrary and identical number in order to survive. “Wealthy” people are arbitrarily designated to get more “resources” in a year than arbitrarily designated “poor” people. How or why this “resource” distribution happens of course is not explained or defined–it’s simply declared to happen by the program, and artificially maintained by the program.

    There is of course no real human society that has ever worked in this way; the simulation, I would THINK, we could all agree is far too crude to say anything meaningful about real cultures or people. The scientists who ran the simulation, however, cannot resist generalizing to real people ANYWAY.

    Oh, but it’s a COMPUTER SIMULATION. It’s been PEER REVIEWED. I’m not generlaizing about the field, but this particulat study, if the scientists involved are being quoted accurately, is Cargo Cult science.

  24. Feynman’s “Cargo Cult Science” address is here:


    I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the
    apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but
    they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.
    …For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and
    things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other
    experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can
    tell they have been eliminated.

    Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be
    given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know
    anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you
    make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then
    you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well
    as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem.
    When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate
    theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that
    those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea
    for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else
    come out right, in addition.

    In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to
    help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the
    information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or

    Can anyone read this paper and say the authors have done anything like this? They create an artificial, exceedingly simplistic model, and then blithely assert that real societies beahve in a similar way, citing only evidence that kinda-sorta sounds like the same thing. They assert that their model applies to Neolithic societies, and they compare their simulation with modern, industrial societies. They equate the artifical, simplistic inequality in their model with the socioeconomic inequality in real societies by a wave of the hand. They assume explicitly that the things people need are identical, merely extracted from the earth in some unspecified way and then arbitraily divided in some unspecified manner; nothing in there about trade, taxation, technology, innovation.

    I could make a toy model of a physical system, write a simulation based on it, and get it published. Such things are often done. But I would be shredded in peer review if I did not spell out where the model is unrealistic, under what circumstances it is valid, compare relevant experimental results, etc. If I made a simulation based on the ideal gas law, calculated some specific heats, and then CLAIMED THAT I COULD EXPLAIN THE BEHAVIOR OF ICE AND STEEL with it without any further explanation, I might have a hard time getting taken seriously again.

  25. Gabriel Hanna says:

    They create an artificial, exceedingly simplistic model, and then blithely assert that real societies behave in a similar way

    Excellent quote from Feynman. With that in mind, does anyone think the “study” I wrote about was free of bias? Frankly, I don’t think there was any attempt to hide the bias. Such openness suggests to me that bias (the proper kind, of course) isn’t a concern in social science. I suspect that stuff like this gets through peer review because it’s described in the vocabulary of science, and it “verifies” the pre-suppositions of all involved. That means it’s obviously good work.

    We’ve all seen polls taken among journalists, indicating that they overwhelmingly support a certain political point of view. Entire news organizations are made up of such people, and they lack the capacity to detect their bias because it seems to be the norm. I have vague memories that I’ve read about such polls of university faculties. Are there any reliable polls that apply strictly to the social sciences that might reveal such political bias?

  26. Not a poll, that I know of. This guy is trying hard; plenty to disagree with but at least he is thinking about it.


    My second point is that we have a statistically impossible lack of diversity in social psychology. This graph shows Gallup data since 1992. Self-identified conservatives have long made up about 40% of the American public. Self identified liberals have made up about 20%. So the ratio in America is about two to one, conservative to liberal. What’s the ratio in social psychology?

    To begin calculating our ratio, I first turned to Google. I simply Googled the phrase “liberal social psychologist.” I got 2740 hits. Then I changed liberal to conservative, and got 3 hits. So it looks like a ratio of roughly 1000 to one, liberal to conservative. But it’s actually much higher than that because this first one is some guy on a dating site asserting that his father was the only conservative social psychologist; this second one is a typographical error; and this third one is a conservative blogger who is angry about liberal bias in social psychology, who writes … “we can further conclude that the possible existence of a conservative social psychologist is statistically insignificant.” So Google failed to uncover a single instance of a conservative social psychologist who is currently active.

    I next conducted a small survey by emailing 30 social psychologists I know, spanning all levels from very senior professors down to grad student. I simply asked:… “Can you reply to this message with the names of any social psychologists that you believe are politically conservative?” There were 4 names mentioned one time each, but each of them was hedged with doubt, such as “I don’t really know, but she did work with Phil Tetlock.” So I won’t print these 4 names. Peter Suedfeld got 2 votes, and he definitely worked with Tetlock. Rick McCauley got 3 votes. The next most common candidate was “I can’t think of any conservatives.” And finally, it turns out there is a fair amount of agreement as to who the conservative is in social psychology, and its Phil Tetlock. So there you have it, we do have a conservative. That conservative blogger was wrong. Right?

    Well, not quite. I wrote to Phil to ask him whether it was true, as widely believed, that he is a conservative. Phil wrote back to me, in characteristically Tetlockian fashion, and said: “I hold a rather complex (value-pluralistic) bundle of preferences and labeling me liberal or conservative or libertarian or even moderate is just not very informative.”

    But I pressed on in my search for the wild conservative social psychologist, and I found him, hiding in a bamboo grove outside of Philadelphia. Watch closely: there he is. Rick McCauley, at Bryn Mawr College. Rick is the only social psychologist I know of who publicly acknowledges that he is politically conservative.

    I am extremely fortunate that I got to know Rick when I was a grad student at Penn, because Rick was a friend of one of my advisors, Paul Rozin. When I first met Rick I was wary of him. I had heard that he was a conservative. I had heard that he supported the Viet Nam war. It was only after I forged a personal relationship with him that I got over my distrust. I had never before met an actual conservative professor, and it took me a while to realize how valuable it was to hear from someone with a different perspective. Rick is now one of America’s foremost experts on the psychology of terrorism. I am convinced that many of his insights have only been possible because he stands outside of the liberal force field.

    But McCauley can’t be the only conservative in social psychology. If we did a poll of the whole field, we’d surely find at least, what, five percent? Well, this room is just about the best sample of social psychologists we’re ever going to find, so let’s see. If there’s around a thousand people here, we should have about 50 conservatives. That would be 5%. So please tell me, by show of hands: How would you describe your political orientation? If you had to choose from one of these 4 labels, which would you pick? How many of you would describe yourself as liberal, or left of center. [At this point, a sea of hands went up. I estimated that it was between 80 and 90% of the audience, and I estimated the audience size to be about 1000 people.] How many of you would describe yourself as centrist or moderate? [approximately 20 hands went up]. How many of you would describe yourselves as libertarians? [Twelve hands went up] And when I asked how many would describe themselves as conservative, or right of center? [Exactly three hands went up.]

    As you can see, we have nowhere near 50 conservatives in this room, we are nowhere near 5%. The actual number seems to be about 0.3%. In this room, the ratio of liberals to conservatives appears to be about 800 to 3, or 266 to 1. So the speaker in the earlier talk was correct when he said, from this stage: “I’m a good liberal democrat, just like every other social psychologist I know.”

    Of course there are many reasons why conservatives would be underrepresented in social psychology, and most of them have nothing to do with discrimination or hostile climate. Research on personality consistently shows that liberals are higher on openness to experience. They’re more interested in novel ideas, and in trying to use science to improve society. So of course our field is and always will be mostly liberal. I don’t think we should ever strive for exact proportional representation.

    But a ratio of two or three hundred to one, in a nation where the underlying ratio is one to two? When we find any job in the nation in which women or minorities are underrepresented by a factor of three or four, we make the strong presumption that this constitutes evidence of discrimination. And if we can’t find evidence of overt discrimination, we presume that there must be a hostile climate that discourages underrepresented groups from entering.

    I submit to you that the underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology, by a factor of several hundred, is evidence that we are a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering.

  27. Excellent, Gabe! That’s the sort of thing I vaguely remembered.

  28. Of course there’s lots of liberals in the sciences (not just social science, but the other “hard” sciences as well.) It’s because scientists embrace PROGRESS. When is the last time you heard a conservative cheer for progress?

    Yup. Didn’t think so.

  29. Hey, as long as we are picking on the social sciences …

    Economics is the social science that analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

    Emphasis mine. So there. 8-P

    (crossing fingers and hoping I got the HTML right)

  30. Inequitable distribution and consumption of goods and services, BAD.

    Equitable distribution and consumption of goods and services, GOOD.

    However, inequitable production of goods and services, where some produce more than others and/or produce goods and services of much higher value, is okay and even desirable (unless you belong to a union).

    “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

  31. Here is the link to the paper. Maybe someone here can find where they use the words ‘equitable and inequitable’ outside of the references.


  32. Thanks for the link, Tundra Boy. I didn’t focus on the words you suggested, but here’s a quote from the paper, without footnote numbers:

    “Inequality reduces cultural diversity through disempowerment of local minority communities]. It may harm working relationships within businesses, inhibit economic growth in developing countries, reduce sustainability, promote corruption, and play a role in destabilizing economies. Perhaps most dangerously, inequality erodes trust and blocks cooperative solutions to urgent social, economic and political problems. Understanding the causes and consequences of inequality is clearly one of the central challenges of the social sciences. Our further research on this critical topic will attempt to identify behavioral traits that tend to increase in frequency in unequal societies, as well as leverage points for shifting societies towards greater stability and social sustainability.”

  33. This was a comparative model about the demographic effects of an equitable, stable model (and demographic expansion) compared to a less equitable, less stable model (and demographic expansion). Why this is causing such consternation about what constitutes a one-to-one comparison in real life is misplaced unless the model’s predictive power is shown to be too unreliable to be useful, in which case it will join the dust heap of other untrustworthy models.

    What is interesting is how much many in the developed world rely on the assumption that unfettered economic competition is somehow superior in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary. What this model shows is that its expansion is not evidence of its superior value to the societies affected but to their detriment in stability.

    If you were to ask a Finn about public private partnership, he or she would not describe what this means as would someone from Toledo, Ohio. The Finn would describe how an involved government allows for greater overall prosperity and stability as well as a competitive advantage for the private companies involved. The person from Toledo would describe how public money (and tax exemptions) is used to bolster a private for-profit business. Apples and oranges.

    If one wishes to honestly understand why a fiscally conservative, politically stable, and socially equitable society functions with across-the-board comparative reductions in anti-social behaviours, then one must put aside one’s biases about the evils of ‘socialism’ and look at what works in reality. And the reality is that destabilizing societies by promoting public policies that increase social and economic inequities is hardly wise if we wish to address the negative consequences that accompany them.

  34. There seems to be a quibble about inequitable vs inequality and equitable vs equality. Presumably there is some fine distinction which makes a substantive difference.
    Okay, then… I found this fine distinction in the context of race and power, written by a Phd in some social studies/science field…

    In common parlance, inequity and inequality may often be used interchangeably. Here, I presume a distinction: the term “inequality” being descriptive and the term “inequity” being normative. Inequality refers to a distribution of some good within in which some obtain more than others. Inequity goes beyond this: the distribution is not only unequal; it is unfair and unjust.

    I think it is reasonable to infer from the passage SC quoted above the authors think the “inequalities” they are studying are undesirable (bad, unfair, unjust, not good for society…), at least in modern society. So even if making this fine distinction their usage of inequality is equivalent to inequitable — though they are careful not to make an explicit value judgment, as that might be deemed unscientific. Essentially their argument, and apparently the conclusion of their study/experiment/modeling, is that inequalities in “access” to “resources” are inequitable. It’s not too hard to break the code.
    First substitute “property, capital, and means of production” for “resources” and “ownership” for “access”. Then correct for proper grammar and voilà
    Inequalities in access to resources are inequitable (bad, unfair, not good) becomes… Inequalities in the ownership of property, capital, and the means of production are inequitable.
    The authors seem sympathetic to Mr. Marx’s thinking. That should be no surprise. The prof of the Sociology 101 class I took way back when was very open about his Marxism. He explicitly stated he was a Marxist and openly taught Marxist social theory.
    I think what may have changed since then is that Marxist profs and social scientists are no longer as open about their Marxism and they speak/write in code now.
    I admit I know nothing about the authors and they may be completely innocent of what I am suggesting, but it sure smells funny.

  35. Jack Hogan says: “It’s not too hard to break the code.”

    Code? Given the jargon of their field, their paper is quite clear. One can argue about whether their viewpoint is correct and their goal of “shifting societies towards greater stability and social sustainability” is desirable, but there’s nothing to debate about what they’re saying.

  36. Yeah, it wasn’t much of a code, but it wasn’t exactly explicit either.

    A question I have is what happens if they run their computer simulation with everyone starting out with exactly the same “access” to the “resources”?

    If nothing happens, if the system is “stable” forever, then their model is sort of self-fulfilling. And if not, what does that mean?

  37. @tildeb:This was a comparative model about the demographic effects of an equitable, stable model (and demographic expansion) compared to a less equitable, less stable model (and demographic expansion).

    Kindly explain how “equitable” and “inequitable” were built into this simulation. They created an arbitrary function that arbitrarily spread undefined, undifferentiated “resources” across a population. (Would it be “equitable” for every man, woman, and child to have an equal mass of tampons or socket wrenches or liquid nitrogen allotted to them in a year? Are the masses of these things interchangable?)

    Kindly explain how this simulation is more descriptive of reality than letting a computer play “Age of Empires” with itself using diffferent programmed strategies.

  38. Mind you that SC and I are arguing against this simulation, even though accepting it would fit into our ideologies. Because if we take the statements made by these scientists about their simulation at face value, they are saying that societies with economic inequality survive better than ones that don’t. SC and I could be arguing that this study proves that income inequality is better for humans in the long run then income equality.

    But we are arguing against it because it is bogus science. They do not provide evidence for any of their sweeping statements ostensibly based on the results of the simulation. Their crude and arbitrary model is at best a starting point for better simulations that might come close to telling you something meaningful about real human societies. The simulation does not come at all close to modeling “inequality” as humans understand it, or societies as humans live in them, or economics that involve anything other than collecting food produced yearly by magic at specific locations, somewhat like hunter-gatherers do.

    Yet they try to tell us that they can predict something about modern industrial societies from this. Why do you do defend such obviously ridiculous conclusions?

  39. Gabriel Hanna says:

    Their crude and arbitrary model is at best a starting point for better simulations that might come close to telling you something meaningful about real human societies.

    As Gabe (or Jack?) has pointed out, the social scientists’ model just conjures up “resources” out of nowhere and arbitrarily allocates them equally or unequally, as if that were the way human societies behave. As I understand the model they used, their description of unequal distribution of resources seems to be based on feudal societies that actually do allocate land ownership according to class structure. Their model assumes that’s what goes on in modern industrial societies. But there’s more to a modern economy than aristocratic ownership of land.

    It would be closer to reality if their model assigned a “productivity” factor to each individual, with some having more of that characteristic than others. Such a model would differentiate human society from a Petri dish of algae. Then their model could allocate the resources they produce either equally or according to productivity. That allocation would crudely represent societies that are communal and those that recognize property rights.

    The model could then work its magic on the communal societies. They’d probably be stable (whatever that means), but I don’t know how they’d factor in the likelihood that the more productive individuals in such a society would either reduce their output or choose to leave for societies more congenial to their talents.

    The property-respecting societies would be difficult to model, but there’s not much need for that. We see them in the real world. I’ve previously mentioned the almost textbook perfect studies that exist (or that have existed): East and West Germany, North and South Korea, Hong Kong and mainland China (before HK was absorbed by and then radically altered all of the mainland). I don’t need a computer simulation, and I certainly don’t need the Stanford model, because I can see what goes on in the real world.

  40. @SC: I’m starting to think I’m the only one who read the paper. It’s available for free. It’s not even a PDF. Anyone who wants to dispute my statement of what the simulation did can just click the link. I don’t get why my criticisms are not being responded to by those who are defending the conclusion.

    There is something huge that goes on in real human societies, even hunter-gatherer ones, that is not addressed. It is that resources have different values for different people at different times. And that when people trade something they have for something they want more, BOTH of them end up richer even though the quantity of stuff has remained the same.

    But this study is assuming that people are just pulling stuff out of the ground, and other people are ending up with it in some unspecified way. We don’t know if the “egalitarian” societies in the simulation are distributing “evenly” resources gathered by a few slaves forced to do all the work by the others, or if everyone pitches in and shares everything equally voluntarily. The simulation doesn’t have anything like that built in and would treat both cases the same. Everyone is ending up with the same amount of “stuff”. That must be fair, right?

    Ok, fine, model hunter-gatherer societies, and I can accept that the simulation is a first crude step in that direction but then why do they feel they have a license to apply their conclusions to far more complicated societies that their model has no relation to? And why do people who consider themselves “pro-science” defend this?

  41. I don’t apologize for saying that if you think that anything which involves a computer and applying statistical significance tests counts as “science”, then you are a Cargo Culter.

  42. @GH

    The paper attempts to answer the question how unequal societies came to completely displace egalitarian cultural norms over time and explains that Our study models demographic consequences associated with the unequal distribution of resources in stratified societies and that the model shows that in constant environments, unequal access to resources can be demographically destabilizing, resulting in the outward migration and spread of such societies. […] It then concludes [T]he fact that stratified societies today vastly outnumber egalitarian societies may not be due to the transformation of egalitarian norms and structures, but may instead reflect the more rapid migration of stratified societies and consequent conquest or displacement of egalitarian societies over time.

    The assumption under review is that the laissez faire competitive economic model may have become prominent not because it is somehow intrinsically better than a cooperative one but because it simply spreads faster. It doesn’t matter what the resources actually are nor what actual value is placed on what. In the model, the comparison shows that a stratified society with inequalities in access to resources spreads faster demographically even though it produces more social instability. Because the instability is borne mostly by the lowest of the classes with access to the fewest resources, the society still survives given the constraints in the context of the model . And that’s interesting when it doesn’t have to be this way. One might assume, for example, that the benefits of social stability outweigh the social instability caused by the competition for resources in longevity; this model shows this is not the case. Again, that’s interesting.

    Some commentators are attempting to justify inequalities to resources by claiming the study under review is biased, which is rather confusing to those of us who find the study’s results to the primary question asked of it interesting. I don’t think anyone – including the study’s authors – is attempting to argue that these results are some kind of definitive conclusion about the value of promoting an equitable distribution of resources over and above the laissez faire invisible hand model so attractive to so many people; rather, it is simply suggesting that the reason for the success and longevity of a laissez faire system that creates and supports vast economic inequities and social instability over time is not based on its own merit but because it spreads much faster and localizes the worst effects of instability on those with the fewest resources and poorest access to them.

  43. @tildeb….”The paper attempts to answer the question how unequal societies came to completely displace egalitarian cultural norms ”

    Is there objective evidence there have ever been equal/egalitarian societies, or “norms” of such that were “displaced”?

  44. @tildeb: The assumption under review is that the laissez faire competitive economic model may have become prominent not because it is somehow intrinsically better than a cooperative one but because it simply spreads faster.

    FOR THE THIRD TIME, tildeb: what, in this model, corresponds to “laissez faire competitive economic models” or “cooperative” ones for that matter?
    Some commentators are attempting to justify inequalities to resources by claiming the study under review is biased,

    Well, then, why don’t you ignore these unnamed commenters, and answer my question about how ANYTHING in this study corresponds in ANY way to the conditions under which humans live?

  45. I’ll help you out, tildeb, since you evidently didn’t read the paper and the link must be broken or something. Kindly explain how this quote from the paper corresponds to any human society, whether “laissez faire competitive” or otherwise:

    Inequality was not defined individually in our baseline simulation. Each population was designated as egalitarian (no classes) or stratified (population divided into 5 classes, each maintained at 1/5 of the population by being redistributed yearly). Resources were then allocated to individuals based on class structure and resource availability. The factor by which resource allocation to the uppermost class exceeded that to the lowest class ranged from 2 to 10, approximating Gini inequality coefficients ranging from 0.14 to 0.42….A total of 40 resource units per year met the needs of one individual. As resources became limited, upper classes took their allocation before lower classes. In egalitarian societies, if more resources were available at that site, they were left untouched, while if fewer resources were available, everyone shared equally in the deprivation. No human labor productivity was included in the simulation, and mode of subsistence (foraging, pastoral, or agricultural) was not specified.

    We assumed a default productivity rate (R) of 20,000 additional resource units produced per site per year….

  46. @tildeb: not because it is somehow intrinsically better than a cooperative one but because it simply spreads faster.

    Incidentally, note the similarity to the biological concept of “fitness”, something you purportedly accept, where adaptations that spread faster may not be intrinsically better, viz peacock tails. Since evolution doesn’t know what “better” or “worse” means, “spreads faster” is all that counts in whether a population gets dominated by the genes that code for the adaptation.

    Of course, this simulation, which bears no resemblance to any set of actual humans, and contains nothing in it corresponding to any sort of human society, is worthless for judging whether competitive economies are better or “fitter” in the biological sense.

  47. @tildeb: And after you’ve answered my question there’s another I’d like you to answer:

    What kind of scientist sets up redefines a common word into an arbitrary and simple concept, does some simple experiments bearing only on that redefinition, and then WITHOUT DOING ANY FURTHER WORK, claims that his experiment tells you about the ORIGINAL concept?

    For example, suppose I used the law of gravitational attraction, and the experiments supporting it, to argue that I have explained why humans are “attracted” to one another under certain circumstances? Of if I used the definition of “work” and “energy” from physics, and the experiments involving those concepts, to argue that people need vacations to recharge “energies” that have been depleted by too much “work”?

    Wouldn’t such an argument make me not a scientist of ANY sort?

    And then when a person who purports to be pro-science defends an argument of this sort, what sort of person is that?

  48. …resource units?

    What’s a resource unit?

  49. @GH

    Once again, and for the last time, I’ll point out that this was a comparative model. You are so hung up on pointing out how each value fails to represent anything in reality that you are failing to grasp the point of the study, so let me use an analogy of numbers and see if you twig… let’s arbitrarily look at, say, the number 4.

    If I were to attempt to show that in a numbering system of comparative quantity, the symbol of 4 represents a number of units that is greater than 3 single units but fewer than 5 single units, I don’t think you’d take great issue with this. I don’t think you’d spend time and energy belittling the notion of math based on failing to find a real 4 in reality. Yet you understand and accept that there really and truly is practical use in assigning symbolic representation to comparative quantities to help us better understand reality. That a 4 doesn’t really exist in reality is not the point in its comparative function we assign to it, in the same way that the values assigned to resources in the study do not need to represent anything specific in its comparative function… a representation you continue to insist is not of comparison as intended but a failure of one-to-one representation of something in reality you think needs to be established first. But I would suggest that we shouldn’t first condemn and then reject the practical uses we can derive from the ‘liberal’ use of numbers as comparative symbols of quantity (because we cannot unequivocally define and then match each number with its corresponding object in reality) any more than we should reject the social sciences for their ‘liberal’ use of comparative data in modelling.

    In the same way that finding statistical correlations of probabilities in mega quantities yield highly accurate predictive uses (what we call quantum mechanics) even though some of the notions of associated wave functions are often counter-intuitive (how can a photon behave as both a particle and a wave at the same time?) we shouldn’t dismiss the social sciences because we believe people are only autonomous individuals and ignore the fact that we also function quite predictably – and to a very statistically significant factor – as part and parcel of a much larger flock.

  50. @tildeb: I’ll point out that this was a comparative model.

    What did it it compare with what, tildeb? It compared one unrealistic, contrived situation with another, and then DECLARED that each unrealistic situation corresponded with some realistic one–with no evidence and no further work.

    we [should’nt] reject the social sciences for their ‘liberal’ use of comparative data in modelling.

    This study did not compare anything real to anything else real. Yet the authors claim to draw conclusions about real societies. Real societies [are]* far different from the ones they claimed they were trying to model!

    we shouldn’t dismiss the social sciences because we believe people are only autonomous individuals

    This is a straw man, tildeb. No one is disputing that humans can be desdcribed by statistics. Can you read?

    The reason I am so angry about this study, and so angry with you, is that it involved statistics that do not correspond to the things they purport to measure.

    And you are defending it because it involved statistics and computers. Which makes you a Cargo Culter.

    * An unrequested edit by the Curmudgeonly Hand

  51. Tildeb, review your own words here:

    What is interesting is how much many in the developed world rely on the assumption that unfettered economic competition is somehow superior in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary. What this model shows is that its expansion is not evidence of its superior value to the societies affected but to their detriment in stability.

    And what, in this study, corresponded with “unfettered economic competition”? Nothing! They hard-coded in a Gini coefficient. There are many forms of human society that have unequal distributions of “resources” and a society with “unfettered economic competition” might well be one of them, but it is not the only one as SC and I have pointed out.

    But you pull a bait-and-switch, talking about a study that involves the unequal distribution of resources and claiming, with no further analysis, that you just learned about laissez-faire economic systems.

    That, sir, is a lie. You have done no work to make the connection between the hard-coded, artificial Gini coefficient in a simulated society where social classes are fixed and are abitrarily maintained at equal percentages of a population, to ANY kind of real economic system, much less the one you claim to be able to draw conclusions about. You are arguing purely from analogy at this point, and not a good analogy because it applies to many more societies than the one you are talking about.

    You think that you can collect statistics that have nothing to do with what you are talking about, run them through computers, do some statistical tests, and produce valid conclusions about real things, and that is completely bogus.

    If social science generally operates like this, it is not science. That’s no shame. Lots of respectable disciplines are not sciences. But calling it a science is a lie, if this is the standard.

  52. FWIW, from the wiki entry for the PloS One.

    PLoS ONE is an open access peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science since 2006. It covers primary research from any discipline within science and medicine. All submissions go through an internal and external pre-publication peer review but are not excluded on the basis of lack of perceived importance or adherence to a scientific field…

    PLoS ONE is built on several conceptually different ideas compared to traditional peer-reviewed scientific publishing in that it does not use the perceived importance of a paper as a criterion for acceptance or rejection. The idea is that, instead, PLoS ONE only verifies whether experiments and data analysis were conducted rigorously, and leaves it to the scientific community to ascertain importance, post publication, through debate and comment. This, however, is not always achieved in practice since editors and reviewers might have a subjective opinion about the articles they are reviewing which in turn might lead to the acception or rejection of papers of doubtful quality or intent.

    “Each submission will be assessed by a member of the PLoS ONE Editorial Board before publication. This pre-publication peer review will concentrate on technical rather than subjective concerns and may involve discussion with other members of the Editorial Board and/or the solicitation of formal reports from independent referees. If published, papers will be made available for community-based open peer review involving online annotation, discussion, and rating.”

    According to Nature, the journal’s aim is to “challenge academia’s obsession with journal status and impact factors.”


    The title of the Nature article on Plos One.

    “Open-access journal will publish first, judge later”