Physics Envy?

Political scientists Kevin Clarke and David Primo placed an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times arguing that the social sciences need to overcome their ‘physics envy.’ I take the main point to be that we ought to value theoretical contributions even if we cannot directly test their empirical implications. Vice versa, we can learn a lot worth knowing about the world from empirical studies on important questions, even if these studies do not have important theoretical implications.

To the extent that this is the argument, I agree (and I made a similar point on these pages just a few days ago). However, I don’t really see what this has to do with ‘physics envy.’ As Clarke and Primo point out, physics has a division of labor between empiricists and theorists. Physicists value theories that cannot be tested (like string theory) and observations for which there is no good theoretical explanation. Clarke and Primo believe that social scientists are stuck in a ‘high school textbook version’ of science. But even a high school student who occasionally watches the Big Bang Theory understands this. So are social scientists dumb?

I guess I am a little confused about this supposed inferiority complex. Clarke and Primo motivate it as follows:

They often feel that their disciplines should be on a par with the “real” sciences and self-consciously model their work on them, using language (“theory,” “experiment,” “law”) evocative of physics and chemistry.

So are they saying that social science theories shouldn’t be called theories or that the experiments social scientists use aren’t really experiments?  I didn’t see an argument for that in the op-ed. And do social scientists really model their experimental work on physicists or on psychologists?

Again, I am sympathetic to creating more room for theories that cannot directly be tested as long as they teach us something important about the world. I also favor increasing our valuation of well-executed empirical work that tackles an important substantive question but that does not make a notable theoretical contribution. I just don’t think we need to beat an inferiority complex to get there.  I have to admit that I found the last sentence of the piece a bit annoying and borderline insulting:

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.

So social scientists have been so busy imitating scientists in order to boost their self-esteem that they no longer think ‘deeply’ (whatever that means) about human behavior? Not sure I recognize this.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.