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16.9.04

Hey Mathematicians: We're Way Ahead Of You

I have a tendency to get kind of defensive about the social sciences' turf. So often natural scientists decide that they can barge on in and use their discipline to explain society, as if nobody had ever thought to really sit down and look at society before. So I was not necessarily the most openminded reader of this article about a new book on how mathematicians can explain romantic interaction. Here's how the book's author explains her approach:

A mathematician would choose a subject -- like love -- and would start thinking, "I think there may be patterns that arise from this subject of love." We would then ask ourselves, "What are the key factors that go into love?" That's where we start by making an abstract move: We have to write the problem into abstract mathematical notations. For love, we might have two people. We might call these people X and Y. Then we would ask, "How are these two people going to interact?" We'd create sample equations with X and Y. For example, we might create one equation predicting that X and Y would fall in love, and then suddenly hate each other the next day. There are obvious patterns to human interaction, so we'd test equations to see what looks right what doesn't look right, what matches what we've observed in the real world and what doesn't. We might prepare an equation, plug in variables, and then say, "Hmmm, that equation may be mathematically correct, but the chance of that happening in the real world is highly unlikely." So we'd pick another equation.

We'd play with different equations and different mathematical analyses to tell us what people are doing in real relationships. In picking equations we'd come across patterns. We may start to see patterns that we may not have noticed otherwise. These patterns may show us things about relationships that we may not have seen or expected.


This is not some special insight that mathematicians bring to the table. This is essentially bog-standard positivistic social science, of the type that has been done for 50 years. But "run of the mill social science" doesn't sound as exciting as "the mathematics of sex."

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