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Irreducible complexity of humans is why social sciences must chuck their physics envy

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“How Reliable Are the Social Sciences?” (New York Times, May 17, 2012),
philosopher Gary Gutting explains:

While the physical sciences produce many detailed and precise predictions, the social sciences do not. The reason is that such predictions almost always require randomized controlled experiments, which are seldom possible when people are involved. For one thing, we are too complex: our behavior depends on an enormous number of tightly interconnected variables that are extraordinarily difficult to distinguish and study separately. Also, moral considerations forbid manipulating humans the way we do inanimate objects. As a result, most social science research falls far short of the natural sciences’ standard of controlled experiments.

Without a strong track record of experiments leading to successful predictions, there is seldom a basis for taking social scientific results as definitive. Jim Manzi, in his recent book, “Uncontrolled,” offers a careful and informed survey of the problems of research in the social sciences and concludes that “nonexperimental social science is not capable of making useful, reliable and nonobvious predictions for the effects of most proposed policy interventions.”

Even if social science were able to greatly increase their use of randomized controlled experiments, Manzi’s judgment is that “it will not be able to adjudicate most policy debates.” Because of the many interrelated causes at work in social systems, many questions are simply “impervious to experimentation.” But even when we can get reliable experimental results, the causal complexity restricts us to “extremely conditional, statistical statements,” which severely limit the range of cases to which the results apply.

If social science were physics, many of us would be knocking around in a collider somewhere.

The fact that humans are irreducibly complex creates an insurmountable barrier to the complete understanding that social science’s “physics envy” seeks, and is, as James Barham has noted, a cause of rampant fudging of data.

See also: Memo to social sciences: Get over your physics envy. Please.

Philosopher: “Physics envy” is the heart ofthe widespread research cheating problem

In one study, half the scientists admitted to reporting only desired results

2 Replies to “Irreducible complexity of humans is why social sciences must chuck their physics envy

  1. 1

    It isn’t just the social sciences. Any science that deals with very complex systems has this problem. Medicine isn’t considered a social science, but the problems with reproducibility of medical research findings are widely known. And they occur so often despite the fact that the statistical expertise applied to medical research far exceeds that in most social research. And then there’s climatology …

  2. 2
    Gregory says:

    Thank you for one of the funniest titles I’ve read in some time! I got over ‘physics envy’ long ago. Does studying the notion of ‘consumer confidence’ or ‘division of labour’ make one ‘less rigourous’ or ‘soft’ in most peoples’ minds?

    Where’s my white labcoat, beakers and glasses? And oh, by the way, I’m a man. This is what most children imagine when they hear the word ‘scientist’ in the USA.

    The irony is that there are many natural-physical scientists who openly and regularly display ‘social science envy’. Whoever invented the idea of ‘physics envy’ was pretty narrow minded and polarising! Thomas Kuhn was partly of this ilk; focus on physics as speaking for the ‘science’ in ‘scientific revolutions’.

    In my work experience, societal relevance envy is rampant among natural scientists. Do the rank-and-file biologists actually innovate or just do the menial work of their superiors? This is partly why engineers, biologists, physicists and mathematicians turn to philosophy and social-political theory in their later years (even starting in their 40s) rather than economists, anthropologists, cultural theorists and sociologists turning to naturalistic fields.

    Research, theory, experiment, archive work, artefactual analysis, literature review, ideology, presuppositions, intuitions, public engagement, etc. This combined makes social sciences far more ‘complex’ than any natural science ever could be. But it also begs the question of what makes people (human beings) special and why this conversation is always-already about us, our values, beliefs, goals, dreams, purpose and our (understanding of our) place in the universe.

    Unfortunately, ‘intelligent design’ as it is currently perceived and stylised in the USA is predominantly not about human beings at all. It is mainly about physics, nature, mathematical and statistical information, engineering, the biosphere. Yet for most people, biology is pretty boring alongside those topics mentioned above, in my biased yet humble-in-dialogue social scientific position.

    Woe be to the ideology of naturalism if ID ever did decide to demonstrate social sciences envy instead of physics envy! IC would take on a wholly other meaning if that ever did happen; you folks might not even recognise ID anymore…

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