August 18, 2006

On the Superiority of Sociology to String Theory

One of my friends in graduate school had an adviser with a gift for memorable expressions, at least for a theoretical physicist, especially when dismayed by some stupidity. Two of his put-downs which stuck with me were "I could go crazy tomorrow and find an appointment in the sociology department", and "I don't want to criticize you, but this is the way superstring people think". I was never sure which was supposed to be worse, but now I know. Sociologists have many faults, but they do know better than to try explaining a variable with a constant, while string theorists evidently do not. (Via CapitalistImperialistPig, who has better things to write about.)

The fact that Prof. Motl reasons so badly here that he'd fail my freshman stats class is, of course, infinitely less offensive than fact that he's a bigot (of the "we must squarely face the harsh light of my pseudo-scientific prejudices" variety). But I can't help feeling — hoping, even — that the two sorts of idiocy are linked.

Update, next day: Greetings, readers from Reference Frame and Brad DeLong! Just to correct some mis-apprehensions: my Ph.D. is in statistical physics, not sociology; I'm an assistant professor of statistics (not sociology) at Carnegie Mellon (not Michigan, where I was a post-doc); the closest I have ever come to "committing a social science" was drawing a map with some other physicists. If you're actually interested in my qualifications, you can look at my CV, or my research and teaching.

Second Update, 20 August: I'm afraid I was too elliptical above. The occasion for Motl's outpourings was this story in the New York Times on how the fraction of black and Hispanic students at New York's specialized high schools, like the famous Bronx High School of Science, has fallen over the last ten years. Fallen, as in, decreased, as in, changed over time, as in, been variable. To account for this, Motl pointed to the black-white IQ gap, which he proclaims one of the great invariant facts of human life, as in, nothing changes it, as in, constant. Even if one grants him his premise (which I would not), the IQ gap might, with a lot of other assumptions, explain why the number of blacks in these schools is low, but cannot explain why it has fallen. This is why I said he would fail my freshman stats class. A Marxist who tried to use the conflicting interests of capital and labor to explain the wage stagnation of recent decades would be guilty of exactly the same fallacy, and I'd fail them for the same reason.

I hope I have made myself clear.

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The Running-Dogs of Reaction; Learned Folly; IQ

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