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Small-Town Story

Brian Hayes

Computing in the Social Sciences

Could migration models as simple as these ever be made to give reliable and accurate predictions? This is a question not just about the models but also about the system being modeled. Similar techniques work quite well in the physical sciences and in some areas of biology—such as the case of the ant-graveyard problem. But we tend to see human habits as more complex and more contingent than any behavior of atoms or ants, and therefore beyond the scope of algorithmic or mathematical rules. After all, ants have been following the same basic impulses for millions of years, and furthermore they don't read American Scientist articles about ant behavior. Our own actions, in contrast, are influenced by familial, social, economic, historical, technological and cultural forces—not to mention sheer orneriness and whim. Whatever brings people to small towns today, it seems unlikely to be the same factor that acted on their parents or grandparents.

And yet the very survival of all those out-of-the-way communities from one generation to the next argues that human actions are not quite as fluid and contingent as they seem. There must be some regularity or consistency in our choices, even if we are not fully aware of it. A conservation law seems to be at work, or at least a stabilizing feedback principle. Computational models may offer our best hope of discovering the structure of such laws.

© Brian Hayes

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