I try to understand social behavior, from bacteria to humans, using the tools of mathematical and computer simulation modeling. One of my favorite tools is game theory, but I use others as well. I have written papers on understanding reasoning in groups (called "social epistemology" in philosophy), the evolution of language, social norms, and ethics. For more detail, please reference my academic CV, my published papers, or my talks and presentations.
All of these share a common thread of using modeling techniques from the social sciences to analyze problems of philosophical interest. The interaction of social science methods with philosophical reasoning is a productive technique that I'm happy to see catching on.
While human language seems different than how animals communicate, there is some substantial overlap. We can learn a lot about both human and animal language by looking for commonalities. Game theory presents a natural technique for investigating linguistic phenomena like meaning, honesty, and deception.
I have investigated a number of questions regarding the evolution of rudimentary languages. This research has employed game theory in an attempt to better understand how simple languages might evolve or be learned by animals or humans and also to better understand how language functions in our society.
Because this research spans both philosophy and biology, I have published in both biology and philosophy journals. This research was for a time supported by NSF grant number EF 1038456 (with Simon Huttegger and Carl Bergstrom).
To what degree is intentionality required for language?
Under what circumstances should one expect simple languages to evolve?
Must speakers desire the same thing (i.e. common interest)?
How much cognitive ability is required by the communicators?
Is the handicap principle the correct explanation for the evolution of honest signaling in biology?
Are there alternatives to the handicap principle? What are they?
Under what conditions will handicap signals evolve? How likely are they?
Social Structure of Science
My second major area of research focuses on considering the impacts that different social practices in science have on the overall success or failure of science as an endeavor. I use simple mathematical and computer models (known as agent based models) of scientific communities.
This research was supported by NSF grant number SES 1026586 and is currently supported by an NSF Early Career Award (grant number SES 1254291).
How should scientific results be disseminated?
Should results be disseminated quickly and widely?
How should journals decide what to publish?
Is diversity important in scientific endeavors?
Does it matter that scientists are motivated by personal gain and not by the truth?
What is the effect of apparently counter-productive behaviors on science as a whole?
To what extent does individual and social epistemology diverge?
On twitter I described this research with emoji:
@NatureNews □□❌□.□□↔□➕□□□. Translation: scientists aren't perfect they're influenced by economics and their peers.
I have worked on a number of problems in the evolution of social behavior, especially cooperation. I have considered both how norms of mutual benefit and fairness might have evolved in very simple circumstances.
What features of the social world encourage the evolution of cooperative behavior?
Why should framing effects have evolved?
How do cognitive abilities effect the evolution of cooperative behavior?
In an ongoing collaboration with Alex London and others, I have been applying techniques from game theory to problems in ethics. Much of our work has focused on understanding the value people place on their dignity and how this interacts with economic decisions they make.