What's wrong with social simulations?

Eckhart Arnold

What's wrong with social simulations?

Author: Eckhart Arnold
Institute for Philosophy
Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf

Date: September 2013; last revision: March 2016


This paper tries to answer the question why the epistemic value of so many social simulations is questionable. I consider the epistemic value of a social simulation as questionable if it contributes neither directly nor indirectly to the understanding of empirical reality. In order to justify this allegation I rely mostly but not entirely on the survey by Heath et al. (2009) according to which 2/3 of all agent-based-simulations are not properly empirically validated. In order to understand the reasons why so many social simulations are of questionable epistemic value, two classical social simulations are analyzed with respect to their possible epistemic justification: Schelling’s neighborhood segregation model (Schelling 1971) and Axelrod’s reiterated Prisoner’s Dilemma simulations of the evolution of cooperation (Axelrod 1984). It is argued that Schelling’s simulation is useful, because it can be related to empirical reality, while Axelrod’s simulations and those of his followers cannot be related to empirical reality and therefore their scientific value remains doubtful. Finally, I critically discuss some of the typical epistemological background beliefs of modelers as expressed in Joshua Epsteins’s keynote address “Why model?” (Epstein 2008). Underestimating the importance of empirical validation is identified as one major cause of failure for social simulations.

Keywords: Social Simulations, Epistemology of Models, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Economic Modeling

Published in: The Monist 2014, Vol. 97, No.3, pp. 361-379.

Bibliographical information


Eckhart Arnold: What's wrong with Social Simulations?, in: The Monist 2014 (97,3), 361-379, DOI: 10.5840/monist201497323, URL: https://eckhartarnold.de/papers/2014_Social_Simulations/Whats_wrong_with_social_simulations.html.

BibTeX record:

Title = {What's wrong with Social Simulations?},
Author = {Eckhart Arnold},
Journal = {The Monist},
Year = {2014},
Number = {3},
Pages = {361-379},
Volume = {97},
ISSN = {0026-9662},
Doi = {10.5840/monist201497323},
Url = {https://eckhartarnold.de/papers/2014_Social_Simulations/
AlternativeUrl = {http://monist.oxfordjournals.org/content/97/3/359}
pdf = {http://monist.oxfordjournals.org/content/

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