Friday, October 30, 2009

Soft vs Hard Science?

Eric Falkenstein has made some sweeping generalizations about scientists. It's always a bit of a puzzle to me when I hear these kinds of arguments. When I look at the world around me I see the application of science everywhere. If scientists don't have a special claim to truth, then either my DVD drive shouldn't work, or communism should.

OK, that needs some explanation. First, my DVD drive:

Einstein discovered the principle of Light Amplification by Simulated Emission of Radiation (LASER, of course) while working on another problem. A few decades later his work was demonstrated to be correct when the first functional laser was built. Einstein's claim to truth is irrefutable, as are the claims of subsequent scientists and engineers who gradually refined the understanding of the concept until my DVD drive could be mass produced and sold to me.

What about communism? Well, economics is something of a science, but it's not a terribly successful one. Communism is a failure precisely because economic principles are not well enough understood to construct powerful and useful technologies for planning and coordinating the efforts of millions of people. Economics doesn't have a LASER equivalent. But, even though economics has not produced a lot of useful or even agreed upon knowledge, there are still many economists who have a need to publish in order to move their careers along. I think this is at the heart of what Eric Falkenstein is criticizing.

But why attack scientists altogether? To my mind, there is a genuine distinction between the hard and soft sciences, and that distinction is most visible in the technologies that emerge, or fail to emerge, from the knowledge that various kinds of scientists produce. After all, the purpose behind science isn't only to gain understanding, but to gain useful understanding that can be applied to better our lot.There's no need to conflate physicists with economists when their relative accomplishments are so distinct.

Alas, Eric doesn't note the distinction, and instead slanders 'physical' scientists while levying accurate criticisms against economists and other 'social' scientists. Maybe he does this because he's not prepared to countenance the disparity.


  1. I think that to a lot of people, anyone who spends time writing books that require specialized knowledge are lumped in as "scientists," especially to the non-scientists. I have to wonder, too, if you think so little of economics, why are you interested in the field at all?

    I'm more suspicious of Eric's assertion that "scientists hate to be told they're wrong." As if that means something. Who doesn't mind being told that? Even the hemp farmers and Berkeley students of the world hate criticism. I doubt that scientists (hard or soft ones) are truly bothered by it more than others.

  2. Jenn,

    I know I've been pretty harsh on economics here, but that wasn't because I don't love it and want to bad mouth it. I was an economics major at one point, and I've given some thought to a PhD in econ. My point isn't that economics is useless crap, but that it is still a very immature discipline - a great deal of work is needed. We need more laborers in the field, not fewer.

    Frankly, I don't think that economics suffers from the stuctural problems that some other academic departments do. (By 'structural' I mean that there are problems with the basic premises of the discipline.) I think that the main reason economics has not gotten very far is that there is not enough high quality data available to be studied. And I think we'd all be better off if economists would just own up to the reality that many economic questions are presently unable to be answered due to the lack of data.

    Physicists are lucky because there are few moral considerations holding them back in the lab. Not so with economists. If moral issues didn't trouble us, economists could get a tremendous amount of data with a little help from the US government. We could invade and conquer a small country, and then brutally implement policies that would be useful for hypothesis testing. But that would be evil and wrong.