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27 September 2011

Hunting (Only) the Edge: This Is "Hard" Science?

I've recently re-watched Hunting the Edge of Space: The Ever-Expanding Universe on PBS's Nova. Curiously, at the very end of the episode, the narrator reveals that only 5% of the universe is explained by physics. (More accurately, only 5% of the universe is explainable by physics as it currently stands.) The other 95% is "dark" matter and energy. (The "dark" phenomena are essentially the error term of the Standard Model.) The worst quantitative models in sociology (i.e. the typical minimum needed to get through peer review) explain about 45% of the social world; the best models can predict more than 85%. If I submitted a manuscript to a journal with an R2 of .05, the editor would likely laugh at me. (Yes, I know I'm grossly oversimplifying the coefficient of determination.) It seems that sociology is actually doing comparatively well.

Now, I fully understand that this smacks of disciplinary insecurity. Let me be clear that I have immense respect for physics and physicists. In fact, I wanted to be a physicist as a child. Sociology and the other social sciences, however, do a laudable job of explaining what is a very messy world. I wish I could track down the original quote (which I think might be attributable to Stephen Jay Gould or Karl Popper), but someone once said something to the effect of "The stars can't choose to break the rules." Indeed.

1 comment:

  1. I have been amazed when talking to chemists, physicists, etc. on campus how much variation there is in their findings and how much of their work is based on theoretical models that may or may not be based in reality. The stars can't choose to break the rules but those I've talked with in the "hard" sciences readily admit that they're only making educated guesses about the stars most of the time.