Snooty Physicists

Courtesy of Teppo at, a  certain physicist dumping on the social sciences.  I realize this is a tired critique, but it is really persistent, so it either hasn’t been properly answered by social scientists (unpossible!) or it pokes us at a weak spot in the armor.  Or both.

Feynman’s main criticism here is that the social sciences don’t produce laws.  I think that is a very peculiar argument, because I don’t think that having a law in hand is the proof of science.  The pursuit of laws is certainly important, at least to a positivist like me, but God knows every social scientist in the world would love to discover some universal law for all societies.  We do, however, have some stuff that works pretty well within particular scopes.  Which makes Feynman’s argument sort of like saying that you can sprint all you want, but if don’t win a medal at the Olympics, you’re not actually running.

It’s also my belief that the social sciences are fundamentally a hell of a lot more difficult than the physical ones.  I’m not saying that that makes sociologists smarter than physicists – the opposite is probably true in general – but it does mean that we’ve got a much harder task.  We don’t get to smash people into their component parts in a lab environment, for one thing, and even if we could (and could get IRB approval), we probably wouldn’t get a $5 billion grant to do it.  Add in that social scientists actually have to abide by ethical codes, and well, it’s just not that simple.  It’s like meteorology – we’re studying a vast, complex system that is certainly governed by laws, but isn’t really comprehensible to humans through that particular lens.  Except if we want to fly a instrument-laden plane into our hurricanes, we have to get its permission first.

However, much like meteorologists, I think that the increasing power of computer simulations will pave the way for better prediction.  I just hope it comes in my lifetime, because I am rather Feynmanesque in my views of most of the methods we use.

See also Peter Klein and comment for a more thought-out reply.



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4 responses to “Snooty Physicists

  1. Coming to the social sciences from biology (Ag Science) there is a lot of similarity in the way that we wonder whether we have any laws of our own, or whether we borrow them (as required) from other disciplines like chemistry and physics. For example my honours work started with a problem of nutrient uptake by plant roots and ended up in soil mechanics (the penetration of clay by root hairs, published in a refereed journal).
    Most of the time we are doing historical studies (in contrast with the generalising sciences), meaning that we are trying to explain specific events – this revolution, this crop failure – using laws from the generalizing sciences. In the human sciences the genral laws are best developed in economics but we have to hope that laws can be found that apply to the wider catallaxy, but they are not well formulated and tested yet.

  2. Ugh – I don’t like very many physicists myself. One of my biggest problems with physicists is that they seem to always assume that physics is synonymous with science – physics is the only science and every other field has physics-envy.

    And – don’t worry – social simulation is taking off in a pretty big way. There are several _departments_ dedicated to social simulation in Britain, for instance, and you can check out JASSS here:

  3. Jesse, you have unleashed a very dangerous new distraction into my life. Also – now that I actually have an income, we ought to get together for a beer sometime. I get home around 6, but I pass through Downtown around 5:30pm if you’re out there.

    Rafe, thanks for the input – I often feel like we non-physicists are all grappling with the same difficulties of perception (i.e. our non-physics status) to varying degrees, so it’s nice to hear that I’m not just projecting that onto other disciplines.

  4. The point is that physicists are no better off than anyone else when they get out of closed systems and models, their laws are conjectural (that is not a criticism, just a fact of life) and they had the incredible good fortune to make their big break with a gigantic clockwork model (the solar system) which for most practical purposes functions as a stable and isolated model. Much the same applies to the structure of atoms.

    But don’t be taken in by the textbook account of the way physics worked – the discredited inductive idea that you collect data and the truth emerges from the growing pile of information. Read Koestler’s “The Sleepwalkers” to find how much the work of Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo was inspired by metaphysical beliefs, mythology and guesswork. Data checks or anchors the process but does not drive the system!

    This is not a concession to irrationalism because the best theories emerge from the process of selection which is a highly rational (and at the same time imaginative) process of criticism. Five forms of criticism need to be deployed: the check on the problem, internal consistency, consistency with other well-tested theories, the test of evidence, the check on the metaphysics.

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