Posted by: CJ | April 27, 2009


A few weeks ago I was wondering about whether wanting a mechanism meant rejecting Newton’s research. Paul Gowder pointed out rejection was unnecessary if we instead merely said there was more to be done. And noted that correlation and causation tend to have much simpler relationships in the physical sciences than in the social sciences.

So I started thinking about the overarching model that pervades all of physical laws, and how that affects notions of uncertainty in physics compared to error in social sciences.

In all discussions of physical law there are three key assumptions: spatial universality, temporal universality, and determinism. Spatial universality is the notion that physical law applies regardless of the dimensions, position, or magnitude of the system under consideration. Of course this is not quite true, since, for example, Newtonian mechanics fails for very large and very small distances. But those are extreme cases. Temporal universality is that the physical laws apply at all times. Combined, those two universality principles say physical laws are the same irrespective of custom, culture, time period, regimes, etc.. And determinism is that the law is, in some sense, deterministic. Even quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics satisfy this. It’s just that the laws involved are no longer laws which govern individual partical motions but instead the probabilities of the motion.

In contrast, the “laws” of social sciences lack all of those characteristic of physical laws. Universality is routinely violated. Even if there are general principles in social sciences that are broadly true, it’s unclear how they will manifest in any particular region and culture at any particular time. Context matters a great deal. And determinism in social science is non-sensical. For example, in quantum mechanics if we say something can’t be determined we mean it is utterly beyond the capabilities of humans to determine it. In comparison, models in social sciences have model errors. These model errors say that there are things which are easily explicable outside the scope of this model. And even the errors within the model might be easy to explain or understand within the context of an individual case.

So the “laws” in any of the social sciences are quite flimsy compared to physical laws. I’m not sure what to make of this observation, but it’s what I’ve been thinking about…


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