Thursday, April 5, 2012

Soft and Hard Sciences

Interesting opinion in the NYT "Overcoming Physics Envy" (H/T Bridging Differences), trying to argue why the "hypothetico-deductivism" of the physical sciences may not be the best strategy in social sciences.

A more important criticism is that theoretical models can be of great value even if they are never supported by empirical testing. In the 1950s, for instance, the economist Anthony Downs offered an elegant explanation for why rival political parties might adopt identical platforms during an election campaign. His model relied on the same strategic logic that explains why two competing gas stations or fast-food restaurants locate across the street from each other — if you don’t move to a central location but your opponent does, your opponent will nab those voters (customers). The best move is for competitors to mimic each other. 
This framework has proven useful to generations of political scientists even though Mr. Downs did not empirically test it and despite the fact that its main prediction, that candidates will take identicalpositions in elections, is clearly false. The model offered insight into why candidates move toward the center in competitive elections, and it proved easily adaptable to studying other aspects of candidate strategies. But Mr. Downs would have had a hard time publishing this model today.

To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.

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