The Monist

Volume 97, Issue 3, July 2014

Models and Simulations

Eckhart Arnold
Pages 359-377

What’s Wrong with Social Simulations?

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. To examine this question, 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 and thus that their scientific value remains doubtful. I relate this finding to the background beliefs of modelers about the superiority of the modeling method as expressed in Joshua Epstein’s keynote address “Why model?” (Epstein 2008).