Introduction: Computer Simulations in Social Epistemology

Episteme 6 (2):107-109 (2009)
Over recent decades, computer simulations have become a common tool among practitioners of the social sciences. They have been utilized to study such diverse phenomena as the integration and segregation of different racial groups, the emergence and evolution of friendship networks, the spread of gossip, fluctuations of housing prices in an area, the transmission of social norms, and many more. Philosophers of science and others interested in the methodological status of these studies have identified a number of distinctive virtues of the use of computer simulations. For instance, it has been generally appreciated that as simulations require the formulation of an explicit algorithm, they foster precision and clarity about whatever conceptual issues are involved in the study. The value of computer simulations as a heuristic tool for developing hypotheses, models, and theories has also been recognized, as has been the fact that they can serve as a substitute for real experiments. This is especially useful in the social domain, given that human beings cannot be freely manipulated at the discretion of the experimenter . However, the main virtue of computer simulations is generally believed to be that they are able to deal with the complexities that arise when many elements interact in a highly dynamic system and which often evade an exact formal analysis
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