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physics envy

It’s Social Science. We’re Screwed.

Quick! We need a sociologist!

What’s harder: physics or sociology?

We tend to lionize physicists. They’re the people who send spacecraft to faraway places, search for extraterrestrial life, and create modern wonders like virtual reality goggles. In short, many of us have physics envy.

On the other hand, we tend to make fun of sociologists. What they’re doing seems to be nothing more than fancified common sense. I once heard a derisive definition of a sociologist: “He’s the guy who needs a $100K federal grant just to find the local bookie.” Few of us have sociology envy.

But is physics really harder than sociology? I thought about this question as I listened to an episode of 99% Invisible, one of my favorite podcasts. The episode, titled “Built to Burn” is all about forest fires and how we respond to them.

We take a fairly simple approach to forest fires: we try to put them out. But this leads to unintended consequences. If we successfully fight fires, the forest becomes thicker. The next fire becomes more intense and more difficult to stop. As one forest ranger puts it: “A fire put out is a fire put off.”

A general question is: Why do we need to put out forest fires? The specific answer is that we need to protect homes and properties and buildings. We assume that we have to stop the fire to protect the property.

But do we? Enter Jack Cohen, a research scientist for the Forest Service. Cohen has studied forest fires intensively. He has even set a few of his own. His conclusion: we can separate the idea of stopping wildfires from the goal of protecting property.

Cohen’s basic idea is a home ignition zone that stretches about 100 feet in all directions around a house. By spacing trees, planting fire resistant crops, and modifying the home itself (no wood roofs), we can protect homes while letting nature takes its course. We no longer have to risk lives and spend millions if our goal is to protect homes.

Cohen has done the hard scientific work. So, can we assume that his ideas have caught on like … um, wildfire? Not so fast. People seem to understand the science but are still reluctant to change their behavior.

Cohen relates a conversation with a friend about the difference between fighting fires and saving homes. It goes something like this:

Friend: “Modifying homes to make them fire resistant isn’t rocket science.”

Cohen: “No. This is much harder. This is social science.”

Friend: “Oh, jeez. We’re screwed.”

Cohen has done the hard science but the hard work remains. As Albert Einstein, the most famous physicist of all, said: “It’s easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.” Perhaps it’s time to develop some sociology envy.

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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