Monday, January 14, 2013

Soft Science Envy

If I look at a correlation plot in biology, sociology or psychology, I can understand what they mean with “physics envy.” Physics is the field of precision measurement, the field of hard facts, the field of unambiguous conclusions – at least that’s what it looks like from the outside. The neutron lifetime (see image to the right) tells a different story, one in which convergence clearly had a social parameter (note that jumps in measurements over the years are outside the errorbars. But in the end, the facts won and isn't the shrinking of errorbars just so amazing? That's the side of physics envy that is understandable.

There is the occasional physicist who puts his skills to use in biology, chemistry, neuroscience or the social sciences, economics, sociology and fancy new interdisciplinary mixtures thereof. Needless to say, people working in these fields aren’t always pleased about the physicists stomping on their grass, and more often than not they’re quite unsupportive.

Source: SMBC.
That’s the ugly side of physics envy. It's is a great stumbling block for interdisciplinary research. You really need a masochistic gene and a high criticism tolerance to try.

Physics envy has led many researchers in other fields to develop mathematical models that create the illusion of control and precision – even if the system under question doesn’t allow for such precision. That’s the hazardous side of physics envy.

But after having read Kahneman’s and Ramachandran's book, I clearly have developed a soft science envy!

Kahneman tells the reader throughout his book how he cooked up hypotheses and ways to test them in the blink of an eye. His hypotheses were frequently triggered by reflecting on the shortcomings of his own perceptions, then assuming he’s an average person. He won the Nobel Prize for Economics for the insight that human decisions can be inconsistent. Ramachandran, who made career learning about the neurobiology from patients with brain damage, literally has the subjects of his papers walking into his office. This is not to belittle the insights that we have gained from their creativity and the benefits that they have brought. But the flipside of physics envy is that not only the facts are hard, the way to them is too.


  1. Hi Bee,

    Read the comments to the linked article at Pharyngula PZmeyers. An interesting cartoon as well?

    Two years ago, in a spectacularly enlightened move, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) decided to enlist the help of physical scientists. The idea was to bring fresh insights from disciplines like physics to help tackle cancer in radical new ways. Twelve research centres were created to focus the effort, and I was approached to run the one based at Arizona State University. See:Cancer: The beat of an ancient drum?

    What immediately came to mind is the effort with respective sciences to collaborate, and with checks and balances, create a cross pollination affect from their respective jurisdictions. I mentioned this some time back.

    In the mind of a cancer patient treatment does such a model proposed by Davies provide for further treatment? Provide a step back to see, "I think you can see how this gene can contribute to cancer when it’s defective. Shoot the guard, open the gate wide, and allow cell divisions to proceed unchecked." as a way in which to deal with,"Dividing cells follow a cycle"

    Does the ancient view covering such a model provide a way in which to deal with that cycle?

    The checks and balancse would require "such corrections at the time" of such proposals. Was this done?


  2. Okay, lets take it one step further?

    The Beyond Center

    BEYOND is a pioneering center devoted to confronting the really big questions of science and philosophy.

    Our research projects address such issues, and range from cosmology, through astrobiology to the ultimate fate of humanity. We tackle subjects as diverse as time travel, the colonization of Mars, multiple universes, the nature of complexity and the relationship between mathematics and nature.

    Is the foundational basis of this project well set in the foundations of science? Why approach any scientist to see that a article written,"Cancer: The beat of an ancient drum?" is a stretch in the dark for what is called good science? So you have a perspective blog share a point of view. They know their science but do they understand the project?


  3. A New Frontier on Cancer: How bold new ideas are transforming our approach – Anna Barker

    I think you sort of get the point that it is okay to reassert the basis of one's science, but sometimes the respective science can benefit from their sectors of science to help provide for new views of the ole ways of doing things.

    Sometimes paradigmatic changes can be initiated, by providing opportunity, from respective the sciences. Why cross pollination attributes, or, why even consider this?


  4. Paradigmatic changes?

    We should stop "a Lisi or a Stuart Kauffman( why as a scientist if up close to the subject) then?" :)


  5. The comic is hilarious:-). A couple of names come in my mind at the moment, Gell Man, Michio Kaku... and don't forget those who at the end of their carrier start promoting with great zeal, new interpatations of Quantum mechanics. This is a clear sign that they have nothing useful to contribute anymore:-)

  6. "People working in these fields ['biology, chemistry,' chubs of baloney] aren't always pleased about the physicists stomping on their grass" Is geometry irrelevant given covariance? Three "identical" gold-plated test masses: Single crystal space group P3(1)21 quartz; single crystal space group P3(2)21 quartz; amorphous fused silica. Their geometries diverge, not their composition. Equivalence Principle violation (Adelberger, Reasenberg) dings GR and string/M-theory BRST invariance but contradicts no prior observation.

    "not only the facts are hard, the way to them is too." Otto Stern dinged the Dirac equation. Yang and Lee were pariahs Christmas 1956. New Year's Day 1957 was different. Rigorous physical theory has been empirically non-physical. Look before you keep.


  7. Wow, the neutron results are an eye-opener.

    Clearly the error bars on the older data did not reflect systematic errors.

    Reminds me of the large revisions of the Hubble constant.


  8. The charge on the electron tells a similar story.

  9. /* people working in these fields aren’t always pleased about the physicists stomping on their grass */

    The same hostility exists regarding people, who are trying to apply soft-science approach in physics, or not? The point is, the formal physics models are strictly quantitative but poorly conditioned, whereas the nonformal methods are nonquantitative but logically robust.

    For example, whole generations of physicists refuse the cold fusion with their deterministic approach or they adhere on Big Bang theory, despite this model suffers with many logical inconsistencies. But because it works well at qualitative level, it's kept as a formal paradigm in similar way, like the epicycle model of medieval era (the epicycle model worked well at the qualitative level too).

  10. Regarding the evolution of experimental values of decay half time of neutron, the connection with electron charge story is quite apparent - but I should be rather careful to interpret it only with systematical errors. The result in light speed and gravity constant measurements exhibit similar trend and it may be possible, it's a result of passing of solar system trough dense cloud of dark matter at the galactic plane. The decay half time of neutron and radioactive elements would be particularly sensitive to it. That is to say, these values can be actually quite correct.

  11. Zephir:

    "The same hostility exists regarding people, who are trying to apply soft-science approach in physics, or not?"

    I've never encountered any. Your reasoning also doesn't make sense. Physicists are trying to use their tools in the soft sciences to improve precision and predictability, which is where these fields leave wanting. What's the point of applying soft science methods to physics in return? To decrease predictability? Best,


  12. You've missed the other frequent misstep of physicists crossing interdisciplinary boundaries: reinventing the wheel. I've seen many cases where physicists "derive" something in another field, which those scientists figured out 40 years earlier (and have since determined was an incorrect approximation anyway).

  13. Hi Bee,

    A nice thought piece as usual. From my standpoint however I experience a more generic form of such envy as it relates to my everyday interactions and experience which I would call reason envy. I would have called it science envy yet that wouldn't encompass its ultimate extent and impact :-)

    “The wise are instructed by reason, average minds by experience, the stupid by necessity and the brute by instinct.”

    -Marcus Tullius Cicero



  14. /*I've never encountered any. Your reasoning also doesn't make sense.*/

    Your arrogance regarding many of my comments indicates, you cannot recognize, that the darkest place is under the candlestick.

    /*What's the point of applying soft science methods to physics in return? To decrease predictability */

    I already explained it above: the strictly deterministic models are poorly conditioned. For example, the results of distant gamma ray bursts indicate, there is no dispersion and space-time foam - this is the immediate conclusion of strictly deterministic approach.

    Whereas the real situation can be, that the distant gamma ray bursts are getting homogenized with higly inhomogeneous space-time foam during their travel instead - this is exactly the opposite interpretation of the same result, but you cannot derive it with strictly deterministic approach.

  15. /*I've never encountered any.*/

    To give you a less subjective example, here Lubos Motl is accusing you of incompetence, just because you're using fenomenological, i.e. less deterministic approach in physics. It essentially means, Motl is considering you an incompetent physicist from the same reason, which you're considering my posts incompetent, because I'm using even more qualitative approach to physics than you.

    My point is, each approach has its strengths and weakness. It becomes particularly apparent right today, when the strictly deterministic approach did hit its limits for description of high dimensional quantum gravity phenomena (just compare the recent "firewall vs. complementarity" discussions).

  16. The formally thinking people usually tend to disrespect these "less developed" qualitative ones - despite they're often unable to follow more complex ways of reasoning ("your reasoning doesn't make sense for me"), because their own way of reasoning is based on formal regressions of reality without deeper understanding of subject ("epicycle approach to reality understanding").

  17. Dear Bee,

    Nice post, as always.

    As a biologist, I also find dismissive attitudes towards physical (or rather, theoretical) approaches applied to biology. There are historial reasons for this mistake, and fortunately things are slowly changing.

    However, if I may just make the point, I think you did not pick the best example for what you dub as "the ugly side of physics envy". (I would say that the ugliest side of physics envy is not having it).

    Besides the title, the specific criticisms in that post about the particular paper that is discussed there are absolutely fair and, as far as I can tell, correct.

    Furthermore, the blogger does not argue against physicists getting into biology, and restricts the criticism (besides the title, yes) to the authors of the paper that is discussed there.


  18. Hi JQ,

    My sentence with the "ugly" side was actually meant to refer to the cartoon (which I didn't find particularly amusing), not the link. I have little doubt that most of the criticism in the post is correct, not that I can tell. What rubbed me the wrong way when I read it was not so much the scientific content but the way this criticism was voiced as in "argh, physicists". Best,


  19. @Geoff Brumfiel

    I strongly disagree with you, you obviously dont understand certain important things.

    What physicists often do is NOT "reinventing the wheel" but putting facts or phenomenological insights, obtained 40 years ago only by handwaving arguments, on more fundamental and theoretically more satisfactory foundation of first principles. This is very valuable, from considering a more fundamental picture in this way often new interesting insights can be gained. Such work is NOT "reinventing the wheel", but very valuable!


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