Ronald GallimoreEveryone's a teacher to someone (John Wooden)

Physics envy in social sciences

Economists, political scientists and sociologists have long suffered from an academic inferiority complex: physics envy. In a recent NY Times op-ed, Kevin Clarke and Primo follow this witty allusion to a Freudian concept with a more serious point: [Social scientists] often feel that their disciplines should be on a par with the “real” sciences and self-consciously model their work on them, using language (“theory,” “experiment,” “law”) evocative of physics and chemistry.

Another discipline recovering from physics envy is psychology which, to be fair, exhibits less symptoms today than 50 years ago. One reason being a diversification of psychology into many–some very large–sub-disciplines such as clinical, developmental, social, cognitive, evolutionary, genetic, biological. Many psychologists no longer belong to the same scientific organizations or share the same space on university campuses. There’s a second reason physics envy has diminished in psychology. Admiration of the cool detachment of physical sciences has been, is being, supplanted by more orientation to the biological sciences’ focus on adaptation over time of living organisms. For many psychologists this is a more agreeable frame given the dynamic nature of human cognition, emotion, and behavior. As the 20th century wound down, many psychologists diversified the research methods considered suited to study of humans.

For most of the 20th century, social, behavioral, and developmental science was governed by a Newtonian metaphor. It was a social physics..... patterned on that of celestial mechanics and the dynamics of nonliving material particles. The resultant image is of a mechanical universe governed by absolute and unalterable laws, made of indivisible and identical units, of a finite number of specifiable types, majestically floating along predetermined pathways in a limitless void. …[The Newtonian metaphor mentally prepared psychologists]....."for a bold exploration of the icy depths of interplanetary space. Instead, they found themselves completely unprepared for the tropical nightmare of a Darwinian jungle: A steaming green Hell, where everything is alive and keenly aware of you, most things are venomous or poisonous or otherwise dangerous, and nothing waits passively to be acted upon by an external force..... The Darwinian jungle manipulates and deceives the unwary wanderer into serving myriads of contrary and conflicting ends. The sweltering space suits just had to come off (Sechrest & Figuerdo, 1992, p. 647-48).
Sechrest, L. & Figuereo, A.J. (1993). Program evaluation. Annual Review of Psychology, 44, 645-74.

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