Physics Envy

Max Borders offers a critique of economic modeling, in which he observes that

a scientist’s model, while useful in limited circumstances, is little better than a crystal ball for predicting big phenomena like markets and climate. It is an offshoot of what F. A. Hayek called the “pretence of knowledge.” In other words, modeling is a form of scientism, which is “decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed.” (“The Myth of the Model,” The Freeman, June 10, 2010, volume 60, issue 5)

I’ve said a lot (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) about modeling, economics, the social sciences in general, and the pseudo-science of climatology.

Models of complex, dynamic systems — especially social systems — are manifestations of physics envy, a term used by Stephen Jay Gould. He describes it in The Mismeasure of Man (1981) as

the allure of numbers, the faith that rigorous measurement could guarantee irrefutable precision, and might mark the transition between subjective speculation and a true science as worthy as Newtonian physics.

But there’s more to science than mere numbers. Quoting, again, from The Mismeasure of Man:

Science is rooted in creative interpretation. Numbers suggest, constrain, and refute; they do not, by themselves, specify the content of scientific theories. Theories are built upon the interpretation of numbers, and interpreters are often trapped by their own rhetoric. They believe in their own objectivity, and fail to discern the prejudice that leads them to one interpretation among many consistent with their numbers.

Ironically, The Mismeasure of Man offers a strongly biased and even dishonest interpretation of numbers (among other things). When a leading critic of physics envy falls prey to it, you know that he’s on to something.