A word of warning; I am about to review a book called ‘Critical Mass – How one thing leads to another’ by Philip Ball, and I must confess outright that I was strongly biased against the central ideas that are presented in the book when I started reading it.
I did study sociology, social psychology, and political science in university at the end of the 70’s. This was a time when these branches of science desperately wanted to earn respect by becoming as much like natural sciences as possible. In the end, they were all about statistics and analyzing numbers.
In fact, this worship of mathematics and statistics was one of the main reasons why I ultimately never got my degree, as I am not a man of numbers at all, but more of a humanist in my very basic personal outlook.
Now when you know where I stand, I can freely confess that the first two thirds of this book just strengthened my prejudices. At first, I still saw this book as an attempt to bring the methods of physical sciences to the world of social sciences. I also saw that the book was not successful in convincing me that this kind of thing needs to be done.
However, the last third of the book did a lot to open my mind to the ideas that are presented in this book. My original fear was that Philip Ball is out to show that the basic ‘laws’ that make society work and change in a certain way can be ‘revealed’ with the use of tools and methods offered by physical sciences.
Happily, this is not the case, but Philip Ball does show, for example, how complex systems can emerge form very simple basic rules. He does show also how applying new kinds of analysis to statistical data can give new kinds of results.
Philip Ball does not, however, suggest that there are ‘secret laws’ that do guide our societies and they could be revealed by using he methods developed for the physical sciences. The last two chapters do make it clear how he does see these methods as just ways to aid science in creating a fuller and richer view of how complex societies do work.
He also clearly thinks that ideas generated in this way can aid the decision making in a society in general, even if one cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’.
The first half of the book presenting the history of how more and less successfully some of the methods and ideas of the physical sciences have been applied to the social sciences in the past.
This book is really a cross-scientific voyage to the world of scientific ideas and most of to their development and history. It has a clear value as such, even if one does not buy the idea that society can be analyzed with the tools that were originally developed to serve the physical sciences.
The book is all in all well worth the effort of reading it. It is not a light read and some parts of it are rather dull basic explanation of scientific ideas. However, also these parts are needed. Without them the book would be left hanging on thin air.
The most valuable part, at least for me, were the last three chapters. Philip Ball has created an easy to read primer to the development of philosophical ideas that concern the very basic ideas over society. I can highly recommend this book on the ground of these chapters alone. At least I got a clear view of how philosophical thinking has developed in this field in the past.
Especially interesting was the chapter that did present the secret truces that were formed in the trenches of the First World War. I have known about them, but Philip Ball does really go deep in the issue to show how humans can act rationally even in a desperate situation like the trenches of Marne.