88718 : Large-Scale Social Phenomena

Fall 2017
Graduate Seminar, Social & Decision Sciences @ CMU
Wean 5304, Tuesdays 4:30 to 7:20 PM
Prof. Simon DeDeo

A special seminar devoted to new ideas and new methods in the study of human behavior on the very largest scales. Emphasis on data science approaches and the analysis of archives, historical and contemporary, as a new arena for the development of new theories and the testing of old ones.

We’ll consider both cognitive models of the individual, and the institutions and social organizations people have created in response—from the parliaments of the 18th Century to 20th and 21st Century technologies such as branching bulletin board comment threads and the blockchain.

A major goal of our seminar is for you to ask, and answer, a non-trivial research question with the view towards a peer-reviewed publication. We’ll use class discussion to answer questions about the reading and to go beyond the assigned papers to speculate, together, on new ways to test their conjectures and claims.

Tea will be served.


(1) Readings for each week. I’ve done my best to focus on positive theories that I think have a hope of getting something right. We’ll avoid learning something only to demonstrate our superiority by later showing it not to be true.
(2) A midsemester “hackathon”—analysis of real world data using the tools, methods, and ideas from the class so far (proposals due 10/3; presentations 10/10).
(3) A final paper (due 12/8), with two intermediate steps: a “blog post” (due 11/7); a first draft (due 11/28).


v.1.1—“blog post” one week later, readings under evolution

Week One (8/29): Rules for Social Minds
[Handout in class]

Week Two (9/5): Bayesian Reasoning and Cognition
Bayesian Reasoning for Intelligent People; Philosophy and the practice of Bayesian statistics; Are Disagreements Honest?

Week Three (9/12): Information Theory
Information Theory for Intelligent People; Jane Austen vs. Virginia Woolf (in-class demo by Simon)

Week Four (9/19): Information Theory & the Human Mind
Rate–distortion theory and human perception; Bayesian surprise attracts human attention; The Cognitive Roots of Regularization in Language

Week Five (9/26): The Use of Information in Society
The Civilizing Process in London’s Old Bailey; Exploration and exploitation of Victorian science in Darwin’s reading notebooks; Individuals, Institutions, and Innovation in the Debates of the French Revolution [pre-print]

Week Six (10/3): Models of Dissent
Conflict and Computation on Wikipedia; Modeling social dynamics in a collaborative environment; The Evolution of Wikipedia’s Norm Network; The Evolution and Consequences of Peer Producing Wikipedia’s Rules
“Blog post” proposals for October hackathon due by e-mail by midnight

Week Seven (10/10): Hackathon Presentations
(15 minutes each)

Week Eight (10/17): Beyond “Cultural Evolution”
Kuhn vs. Popper: the Struggle for the Soul of Science (Steve Fuller)—n.b., a (short) book

Week Nine (10/24): Conflict & Creativity
Conflict & Creativity on Wikipedia [preprint]; additional readings T.B.A.

Week Ten (10/31): Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Common Knowledge
Rational Ritual (Michael Chwe)—n.b., a (short) book

Week Eleven (11/7): The Blockchain
Satoshi Nakamoto e-mail on Proof of Work; additional readings T.B.A.

Week Twelve (11/14): Beyond Bitcoin
Selected White Papers from recent ICOs: ZeroCash, Tezos, additional readings T.B.A.
Final paper “blog posts” due by midnight

Week Thirteen (11/21): Curiosity, Creativity, Play
The Psychology of Curiosity; additional readings T.B.A.
[Thanksgiving Break]

Week Fourteen (11/28): Machiavelli’s Mistake?
Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (Sam Bowles)—n.b., a (short) book
First drafts of final papers due by midnight

Week Fifteen (12/5): A humane dissent
The Concept of Scientific History (Isaiah Berlin)
Final papers due noon, 12/8, by e-mail to sdedeo@andrew.cmu.edu