One safe prediction we can make about the coming election season
is that there will be an abundance of pundits with conflicting
opinions. We'll hear from TV personalities and party functionaries.
But, if science writer Philip Ball is right, the people we really
should listen to are physicists.
In "Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another," Ball gives a
sprawling account of physics over the past several centuries - from
thermodynamics to complexity theory - showing how fundamental
insights about the behavior of matter can be adapted to understand
the dynamics of society. He applies this claim intriguingly to a
variety of social, economical, and political situations, showing,
for instance, that voting follows patterns akin to magnetization,
and marriage rates resemble the behavior of gasses and liquids.
While neither cohesive nor gracefully written, the book provides
a solid foundation for assessing a compelling argument: The tools of
statistical physics cannot reasonably be ignored by a government
seeking to construct viable social policy.
"Once we acknowledge the universality displayed in the physical
world," Ball writes, "it should come as no surprise that the world
of human social affairs is not necessarily a tabula rasa, open to
all options." In other words, before deciding how we ought to act,
we should figure out what can - and can't - be done.
Of course, Ball isn't the first to suggest that societies might
learn from science. In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes famously
built a political system around the rational study of what he
believed to be human nature. "The skill of making, and maintaining
Commonwealths consisteth in certain Rules, as doth Arithmatique and
Geometry," Hobbes claimed in "Leviathan" (1660). With those rules,
he deftly extrapolated from man's insatiable desire for power, the
need for absolute monarchy.
Ball rightly recognizes Leviathan's importance: "[Hobbes] does
not describe a society ready-made and shaped by his own preferences,
but builds it up, with careful logic, from his mechanistic view of
how humans behave."
Yet he also rightfully dismisses Hobbes's draconian conclusions.
How? Not only by rejecting his questionable premise, but also, more
significantly, by challenging his methodology.
Just as one can't explain the behavior of planets by studying the
motion of atoms, Ball believes that one cannot understand how
societies work by examining the motivations of individuals. "One of
the features of collective behavior arising from local
interactions," he writes, "is that it becomes impossible to deduce
the global state of a system purely by inspecting the
characteristics of individual components." Even if people
individually are power hungry, we can't safely assume that
civilization as a whole works that way. …