This node is not about what Physics Envy is, but my personal encounter with it. A good friend of mine, who also nodes on E2 once argued with me, rather convincingly, that it was pointless for social scientists to pretend that they were scientists. His particular pet grouse was against economists- he accused most of them, including recently Nobel Prize winning Amartya Sen, of using simplistic mathematical formula to say equally simplistic things, which most graduate level physicists could comprehend easily.
So here's the caveat- I'm neither an economist nor a physicist. I'm a historian. I don't know much math- I did some math in high school, and did reasonably well, but it's all a thing of the past now. Most importantly, I don't understand math. So I'm not in a position to comment on what my good friend has to say about economics and physics envy. But I am willing to accept that the social sciences have increasingly tried to find 'formulae' to explain various phenomenon that they are dealing with, and I would argue that this is not a healthy phenomenon.
Over the last two years, I've been studying some political science as well and my curriculum is full of mathematical formuale that I can't understand. Why, to understand comparative government and the legislative functions of judiciaries, would I need to use game theory? But I think my argument is much more basic than simply moaning about my own incompetence.
The social sciences are incredibly complex- we are dealing with phenomena that never have mono causal explanations. More importantly, there is never a right answer. As any historian will tell you, what constitutes a 'historical fact' is really a creation of the historian. And why an event happened can have infinite number of explanations depending on place, time and context.
I was once asked: but there must be a truth in history, musn't there? But no, there isn't. That's because 'truth' in itself is a subjective term. Let's take something that's been in the news recently: the Rwandan genocide. As Philip Gourevitch in his somewhat disturbing and shocking book notes, what the Hutus thought as they killed Tutsis is a matter of conjecture. But at the precise moment (ok, this is going to be a bit grisly), that a machete wielded by a member of Hutu Power fell on the head of a Tutsi, was there a 'truth'...was there a single version of truth to what was happening? Because 'truth' cannot be captured on celluloid and portrayed one dimensionally. Truth has many colours and many versions. So at that moment, to the Tutsi, what was really happening was genocide and ethnic cleansing. To the Hutu, they might just have been following orders from higher up. Who knows what the truth is, but I am willing to argue that at every moment in history, there are multiple truths and multiple versions of the same story- and that each of those multiple versions may have their own validity.
This is not to provide some 'revisionist' version of what happened in Rwanda, or to trivialize. All I am arguing, is that at the moment of killing, there would have been multiple versions, depending on who you were, what you were doing, of what the 'truth' was, and what was happening (apart from the obvious fact that someone was killing someone else...but even there, the Hutus could argue that they were not just killing, they were 'cleansing' their country- frightening as that might sound, there were some who did argue that), and how one could explain that event.
So where am I going with this argument? I'm going to argue that what this means is that for social scientists to constantly use scientific methods, formulae and god forbid, game theory to explain such complex phenomenon is, pardon my language, bullshit. It's an attempt to elevate the discipline to the level of a 'science' in the hope that this will confer some sort of greater legitimacy on it. What it actually does is often end up with simplistic solutions.
To give my favourite example from ancient Indian history: a noted and respected historian Walter Fairservis, tried to find a reason for the end of the Harappan civilization
, located in the northwest of the modern Indian subcontinent
. He argued that the civilization was beset by famine, and literally and metaphorically withered away. What did he use to justify his claim: he looked at the number of cows they had- how did he do this? He looked at the number of cows they have in the region at present, he looked at old population census (the first census in India was in the 19th century, the Harappan civilization dates back to 2000 BC), and he does a whole lot of complicated calculations to show that in fact the number of cows was going to exceed even the population, that there wouldn't be enough fodder (again a bizarre series of calculations based on modern statistics) and so there would be a famine.
I'm perfectly willing to accept that a famine may have weakened the Harappan civilization, but surely such complicated yet nonsensical formulae do nothing for the credibility of a discipline. Oh, and did I forget to mention, that we've yet to decipher the Harappan script? So while we have some stone tablets for the period, we have no clue what they say!
Having launched this tirade against 'physics envy', I must conclude on a more conciliatory note. Yes, in some disciplines, like Comparative Government, you do need to create some models, and a rigorous knowledge of statistics does help in the process of comparison. In the field of IR again, it is possible to explain some phenomena, especially in the field of strategic studies, using models and game theory. But for god's sake, let's not try and ape the physicists- the social sciences are wonderful disciplines in themselves, and increasing the rigour of the discipline does not mean an abject capitulation to nonsensical terminology and calculations that could have been disposed of.