Summer School Focuses on Links between Computer Simulation and the Social Sciences

02 October 2017

A five-day seminar hosted by the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS) provided philosophers, social scientists, and historians a detailed understanding of the capabilities and challenges of simulation.

It is a myth that computational science methods are relevant only in STEM-related fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). In fact, computer simulation plays a twofold role in the humanities and social sciences: Increasingly, computational approaches are being applied in the context of social and political research, as well as in new interdisciplinary fields such as digital humanities. At the same time, the rapid expansion of computation and simulation has led some with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences to reflect on how computer simulation influences the practice of science as well as political and organizational decision-making processes. In both cases, a firm understanding of simulation, including its capabilities and limitations, is crucial.

On September 25-29, 2017, students and lecturers with backgrounds in the humanities, social sciences, and computational sciences gathered at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS) to explore such issues in the Summer School on Computer Simulation Methods. The event was a joint effort organized by Michael Resch (Director, HLRS) and Andreas Kaminski (Head, HLRS Department for Philosophy of Science & Technology of Computer Simulation at HLRS), in collaboration with Giuseppe Primiero (Middlesex University London) and Viola Schiaffonati (Politecnico Milano).

“Having studied differential equations and simulation myself as a physicist,
I was fascinated by the concept of questioning scientific practice,
particularly how under the same conditions simulated outcomes can differ.”

— Marta Conti, Student of Physics and Philosophy, University of Barcelona

The goal of the Summer School was to increase cross-disciplinary understanding between computational scientists on the one side and researchers in the humanities and social sciences on the other. Such bridge building is important because each has different interests and fundamental questions when it comes to thinking about computational science methods. Whereas computer scientists are interested in methodological and technical issues involved in simulation technologies, for example, researchers in the humanities and social sciences explore issues that operate on the level of self-observation. Such approaches can support critique of the extent to which simulations can be trusted in their representation of real-life phenomena.

These questions are not purely philosophical, however, as they inevitably raise technical questions that will be important for designing better simulation methods. In selecting the parameters used in a program to study a specific scientific, technical, or social phenomenon, for example, what assumptions does the scientist make and what vital aspects might he or she have overlooked? And what are the implications of these choices for the reliability of the outcome?

Exploring key questions in simulation

In order to give the participants a framework for exploring such questions, the summer school was divided into several main topics. Led by HLRS investigators Uwe Küster and Ralf Schneider, the first day provided an introduction to some foundations of high-performance computing, numerical methods, and the differences between simulation and experimentation. In the afternoon, Schiaffonati discussed relationships between experiment and simulation in the sciences, presenting a nuanced look at different types of simulations and their uses in research.

The second day was dedicated to the role of mathematics in simulation. For centuries mathematics has been an important framework for describing the world and predicting what will happen in the future. As Küster, Kaminski, and Johannes Lenhard (Universität Bielefeld) suggested, however, several fundamental problems related to the nature of mathematics and its implementation in software raise questions about the extent to which we can always trust it. Tuesday afternoon also featured a lecture looking specifically at the use of computer simulations to understand biological systems in the cell.

“What I liked most about this Summer School was the exchange on
heavy epistemological questions, like what we are doing
with computers, and why we are doing it the way we are.”

— Ramon Alvarado, Philosophy of sciences student, University of Kansas 

In a day focusing on social applications of simulation, empirical sociologist Nicole Saam (Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg), presented a two-part lecture on the challenges facing social science simulation. “Computer simulations in the social sciences,” Saam said, “are mainly done either as theory-free microsimulations or on the basis of rational choice theory, although these approaches play a rather marginal role in sociology. What is missing are computer simulations on (different) theoretical fundaments.” Saam discussed several paradigms in sociology that are still lacking in suitable applications in computer simulation and explored the reasons for this with the participants. Primiero followed her lectures with a talk using an epistemological approach to think about case studies in agent-based simulation.

Friday focused on the use of visualization in simulation and data analysis. Following a tour of the CAVE, a three-dimensional virtual reality environment at HLRS, Visualization Department Head Uwe Wössner discussed the opportunities and challenges related to the use of virtual reality in research and technology development. The lectures concluded with a talk by Angelo Verneulen (Delft University of Technology), a scientist and artist who is developing new concepts for starship development.

In addition to the featured lectures, the Summer School also included project presentations and hands-on tutorials by participants, as well as a field trip to the ZKM in Karlsruhe (Center for Art and Media), where HLRS Director Michael Resch held a lecture focusing on the lack of a coherent theory of computer simulation.

The start of a new collaboration among HLRS, Middlesex University, and Politecnico Milano

The decision to hold the first edition of this Summer School at HLRS in Stuttgart the result of its unique mandate. “The Department of Philosophy of Science & Technology of Computer Simulation,” Kaminski explained, “manages to close the gap between social science researchers interested in computation and their research subject. Philosophers and social scientists are able to study numeric scientific practice and the methodology of simulation at the same place where expertise in these fields is gathered.”

Considering the warm reception that Summer School received from its attendees, the organizers plan to deepen their collaboration and organize future events focusing on the intersection of philosophy, social science, and computer science. “We have considered the possibility of organizing a workshop in Milano around the end of next year,” Viola Schiaffonati revealed.

Lena Bühler