The Sciences

Testing Your Theories Is Not a Matter of "Envy"

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollApr 2, 2012 11:11 PM


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Via JenLuc Piquant's twitter feed, here's one time I'm not going to stick up for my colleagues in the social sciences: a misguided attempt to cast the search for empirical support as "physics envy." It's a New York Times Op-Ed by Kevin Clarke and David Primo, political scientists at the University of Rochester. There is something rightly labeled "physics envy," and it is a temptation justly to be resisted: the preference for reducing everything to simple and clean quantitative models whether or not they provide accurate representations of the phenomena under study. The great thing about physics is that we study systems that are so simple that it's quite useful to invoke highly idealized models, from which fairly accurate quantitative predictions can be extracted. The messy real world of the social sciences doesn't always give us that luxury. The envy becomes pernicious when we attack a social-science problem by picking a few simple assumptions, and then acting like those assumptions are reality just because the model is so pretty. However, that's not what Clarke and Primo are warning against. Their aim is at something altogether different: the idea that theories should be tested empirically! They write,

Many social scientists contend that science has a method, and if you want to be scientific, you should adopt it. The method requires you to devise a theoretical model, deduce a testable hypothesis from the model and then test the hypothesis against the world... But we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences... Unfortunately, the belief that every theory must have its empirical support (and vice versa) now constrains the kinds of social science projects that are undertaken, alters the trajectory of academic careers and drives graduate training. Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.

Sorry, but "thinking deeply" doesn't cut it. People are not especially logical creatures, and we're just not smart enough to gain true knowledge about the world by the power of reason alone. That's why empiricism was invented in the first place, and why it's been so spectacularly successful over the last few centuries. Clarke and Primo seem to confuse "the need for empirical testing" with "the need for every model proposed to be backed up by data before it gets published." If they had stuck to rejecting the latter narrow idea, they would have had a decent case. Certainly we physicists don't require that every model be supported by data before it is published -- otherwise my CV (and those of most of my friends) would be a lot shorter! But we all agree that the ultimate test of an idea is a confrontation with data, even if a theory might be too immature for that confrontation to take place just yet.

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