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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The quest to understand human society scientifically | Around Campus - MIT News

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand and Senior Writer: Kathryn O'Neill.

In STS.047 (Quantifying People), MIT students explore the history of science from the 17th century to the present, through the eyes of statisticians and sociologists.

STS.047 is one of several courses featured in a new MIT HASS undergraduate concentration called "Computational Cultures," which brings together perspectives from the humanities and social sciences for students to understand and improve the social, cultural, and political impact of the computing tools and digital devices that shape our lives.
Photo: Jon Sachs/SHASS Communications
Is it appropriate to evaluate the causes of suicide but dismiss mental illness as a contributing factor? What happens when you talk about war deaths as colored wedges on a chart? Does that change the conversation in important ways?

MIT students grappled with these and similar questions this spring in STS.047 (Quantifying People), a new subject focused on the history of the quest to understand human society scientifically. William Deringer, the Leo Marx Career Development Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, says he developed the class to enable students to explore the questions that motivate much of his own research: “Why do we invest so much trust in numbers, and what are the consequences for who we are?”

Calculated Values:
Finance, Politics,
and the Quantitative Age
Deringer has written a book on the subject, "Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age" (Harvard University Press, 2018), in which he examines the history of human efforts to use statistics to influence opinions and shape policy. “Many MIT students will likely be practitioners in the data field, so I want to encourage them to think about these issues,” he says...

This complex interplay of science and society is precisely what attracted Rhea Lin to the subject. “I wanted to take a humanities course that would give me the opportunity to reflect on how society has been impacted by science in the past and how my work as an engineer might affect people in the future,” says Lin, a senior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science.
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Source: MIT News