The Empty Insult of “Physics Envy”

The philosophy of science deserves more regular and thoughtful attention than it gets. Thinking about how and why research should be done is something that transcends any particular research question or topic and in a way is what best brings researchers together. But few things are as tiresome, stale, and unproductive as the accusation that “social scientists have long suffered from an academic inferiority complex” and that “they often feel that their disciplines should be on par with the ‘real’ sciences” and that they are attempting to “imitate the hard sciences.”

These accusations almost destroy what would otherwise be an interesting and thoughtful op-ed in the NYT and interview in Inside Higher Ed. The authors are two political scientists, and they seem to have some worthwhile ideas. Sadly they bury those ideas below a parade of empty claims about the “envy” of the social scientists they disagree with. As an example of their more substantive content, they write: “Theoretical models can be of great value even if they are never supported by empirical testing.” Thinking about how the world works and reasoning through possible processes and mechanisms even when you can’t empirically test anything yet can certainly have value. Or as another example, “Likewise, the analysis of empirical data can be valuable even in the absence of a grand theoretical model.” This also appears to be a reasonable point to make.

Given their worthwhile ideas, it seems a shame to me that they waste so much time making accusations that they have no way of substantiating and which are little more than silly insults. There have probably always been debates about the role of theory and empirical evidence in the science of human society and behavior. But somehow the idea that people who want more empirically-tested theory are just jealous of non-human sciences has achieved the status of something like Godwin’s Law: As a philosophical discussion about social science grows longer, the probability of an accusation that social scientists have an inferiority complex and are envious of physics approaches 1.

All of this is problematic because it tries to reduce a substantive disagreement to simply an indicator of a scientist’s self-confidence. I think it doesn’t get rejected as such an empty part of the debate because it’s just become so common. (Though admittedly, many social scientists do like examples from the non-social sciences). Yet imagine if some of the social scientists who are presumed to believe what they believe merely because they aren’t confident enough, started to claim that social scientists who don’t believe as they do are just envious of novelists and poets. Or what if those who are skeptical of the claim that there’s just “something special” about humans claimed that social scientists who disagree with them are just jealous of theologians.

What the authors call the “hypothetico-deductive model” can be defended without reference to physics. The notion of that theory should inform research can be supported by scientists that aren’t insecure about the “science” in social science. These are arguments and discussions worth having. Sadly, that debate and the worthy goals the authors suggest is their purpose in writing their book aren’t likely to be furthered by initiating the debate with a tirade of accusations about the personal motivations and confidence of the scientists they’re criticizing.


One thought on “The Empty Insult of “Physics Envy”

  1. Hi Paul;
    I agree! Impugning the choices of other researchers is not a substitute for quality analysis, even though I have too often taken that easy road myself. My own inferior critiques were directed at simple positivists, but I found a better foundation for analysis in an unexpected place.
    An offhand suggestion led me to center my dissertation on the concept of measurement validity. I first read Samuel Messick’s 1989 chapter on Validity in the Handbook of Educational Tests and Measures, and I was surprised to see a post-positivist approach coming from a psychometrician. Subsequent reading of the historical development of test validity led me to compare that journey to the one that was taken by Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was the quintessential positivist, but lost his voice when he found that a perfected positivism had very little to say about anything that was worth talking about. He then became for many the quintessential post-positivist. I think his analysis is great, just like Messick’s, because they both worked through their philosophical difficulties and achieved a true post-positivism instead of an equally simplified anti-positivism. It is not just the lack of theory that is the problem in positivism. It’s hard hermeneutic work to get to the center of practice and experience. This is from John Shotter’s 1993 book: Cultural Politics of Everyday Life (U of Toronto Press):
    (W)e say our theories are true theories if the predictions we derive from them match or ‘picture’ the outcomes of the processes we study. So, although we can bring off some quite spectacular results in the sciences, it is just in terms of such results, not the whole structure of a theory . . . Our knowledge, as Quine (1953)* said later, “is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges”. (p.74)

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