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From Statistical Physics to Social Sciences: The Pitfalls of Multi-disciplinarity

Jean-Philippe Bouchaud

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Abstract: This is the English version of my inaugural lecture at Coll\`ege de France in 2021, available at I reflect on the difficulty of multi-disciplinary research, which often hinges of unexpected epistemological and methodological differences, for example about the scientific status of models. What is the purpose of a model? What are we ultimately trying to establish: rigorous theorems or ad-hoc calculation recipes; absolute truth, or heuristic representations of the world? I argue that the main contribution of statistical physics to social and economic sciences is to make us realise that unexpected behaviour can emerge at the aggregate level, that isolated individuals would never experience. Crises, panics, opinion reversals, the spread of rumours or beliefs, fashion effects and the zeitgeist, but also the existence of money, lasting institutions, social norms and stable societies, must be understood in terms of collective belief and/or trust, self-sustained by interactions, or on the contrary, the rapid collapse of this belief or trust. The Appendix contains my opening remarks to the workshop ``More is Different'', as a tribute to Phil Anderson.

Date: 2023-08
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-evo, nep-hme and nep-hpe
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