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Nothing Buttists and Physics Envy

It's so precise!

It’s so precise!

Physics is beautiful. It’s precise, it’s elegant, it’s mathematical, and it explains and predicts. If you know the inputs, you also know the outputs.

Perhaps that’s why so many other sciences (and pseudo-sciences) seem to have physics envy. Envious sciences can’t simply explain; they also have to predict. That’s where they get into trouble.

Take economics. It used to be about markets and policies and people and behavior. Then it succumbed to physics envy and grew (in my opinion) far too fond of calculus. Economists seemed to think that calculus would provide the same predictability as physics. Just remove the human element, forget the politics, and focus on the math. As Roger Lowenstein writes, “The modern economist employs mathematics as a badge of neutrality.” We should all be thankful that Daniel Kahneman et. al. have restored human behavior to economics.

Physics envy seems to have invaded neurology as well. As David Brooks points out, we now have “nothing buttists” – humans are “nothing but a bunch of neurons.” Taking this view supposedly leads to predictability. Indeed, Adrian Raines believes that we can predict violent crime. (My low heart rate may consign me to jail).

Ultimately, I think it’s all just silliness. Professors are trying to put the gloss of scientific certainty over their incomplete theories. They’re trying to predict what humans will do with precision and certainty because that’s what physicists do. Fortunately, humans don’t behave like subatomic particles. Life is unpredictable – that’s what makes it fun. Just remember to eat dessert first.

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