Friday, August 28, 2015

Who cares!

Looking back at events from nearly thirty years ago, I am pleasantly surprised at the decisions that I made.  One of those was to walk away from all things math, and I am all the happier.

Math came easily to me; not only did I not have anxieties, I enjoyed learning and doing math.  In school, I routinely did the classwork way ahead of the rest and then used up the remaining time to finish the assigned homework. (Which explains why my mother claims, and rightfully so, that she has never ever seen me do homework or study.)  I understood  the abstraction when in engineering too, though by then I knew for certain that my heart was not in math.

When I switched out of engineering to study the subjects that I wanted to know more about, it was clear that most faculty expected me to put my math and engineering background to use.  The social sciences were getting heavily into math and statistics and those who could play with numbers had an easier time publishing papers, which was all that mattered.

But, I couldn't care.  Because, I could not be convinced that mathematical and statistical modeling would explain the human and social dynamics that I was interested in and, I was even more confident that those models could never predict anything into the future.  Instead, I chose to transition into the methods that have been used for centuries--thinking and writing.  It was a difficult struggle because the years of schooling in India had screwed up my thinking abilities and had not given me any sense of how to write.

I even made fun of the articles in journals.  They were all gobbledygook.  Plenty of data but minutiae. Greek symbols expressing statistical modeling of social issues.  And sentences that rarely made sense.

The net result of all that?  I was a loser out of graduate school!  A loser I continue to be.  At least, I am my own loser, eh! ;)

Thus, I chuckled when reading this goofy and satirical proposal to abolish the social sciences.  
Social science was — it is best to speak in the past tense — a mistake. The dream of a comprehensive science of society, which would elucidate “laws of history” or “social laws” comparable to the physical determinants or “laws” of nature, was one of the great delusions of the 19th century.
It is one crazy physics-envy.  Physics--my high school intellectual love affair that I have written about--was the giant among the sciences in the 19th and early 20th centuries, has a bunch of laws that explain quite a few things.  Those laws are applicable to processes here in the US as they are to anywhere else on the planet, and even beyond earth.  So, the crazies who wanted to study the problems that humans and societies face decided to develop models to explain the problems.  And to develop laws and theories.  Madness, I say, madness!
While “physics envy” has been most pronounced and destructive in economics, pseudoscience has infected other disciplines that study human behavior as well. The very term “political science” betrays an ambition to create a study of politics and government and world politics that will be a genuine science like physics, chemistry or biology.
There is only one reason why economics has become so influential--it is a reflection of how much  we humans have made money to be the most important aspect of our lives.  As individuals and as societies, we apparently care more for money than for anything else.  Hence, anybody who claims to divine trends in that moneymaking becomes the modern day high priest at the holy altar.  Economists, therefore, have been placed on the highest pedestals--never mind the fact that economists have successfully predicted ten of the last five recessions ;)

But, all this is for naught.  I am even more of a loser than what I was back in graduate school.  A loser I might be, but I am confident that all it will take is one look around the world in order to understand that developing mathematical and statistical models will do nothing to help us with the problems all around.  Oh well.  Losers don't get to write history! ;)

4 comments:

Anne in Salem said...

Anything involving humans cannot be quantified to produce reliable predictions. Every investment flyer knows that - past performance is not indicative of future returns, or however they write it in the small print. We can collect data that show what happened, but the numbers cannot show why. Emotion cannot be quantified, and economics is highly emotional.

Eliminate social sciences? Rubbish. Rename it, and everyone will fall in love with it again.

Sriram Khé said...

"economics is highly emotional."
Say that to an economist's face and see if you will survive the slap across your face ;) They think, no wait, they believe that economics is a science!

Well, eliminating the social sciences is like Swift's "modest proposal." Satirical, but to make the point that the social sciences need to ditch their false belief that what they do is "science."

Anonymous said...

Regarding your point about walking away from math, I can empathize. High-school math is interesting, but math in college, especially in the context of engineering or science, is just tedious and boring. Put in a different way, algebra (and some calculus) is interesting, but differential equations, linear algebra, etc. are tedious. I came to this realization myself about 20 years ago. Now, in my career, I cannot avoid math (I teach engineering), but I try to keep it a moderate level.

Also, I am deeply sceptical about mathematical modeling. As you noted, I too question if math models are needed to explain the world or predict the future. The important thing we need to understand the world better are new ideas or concepts, and these ought to be expressed in words, not in math symbols.

Sriram Khé said...

Ah, you bring in such important points but are anonymous ... what if I type a whole lot and you don't even get to read it and we don't even engage in discussions? :(