A social science of the obvious

By Razib Khan | September 3, 2012 3:13 am

I’m reading Jim Manzi’s Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society right now. No complaints, though that’s no surprise, as I’m familiar with the broad outline’s of Manzi’s work, and have found much to agree with him on  in the past (though there are issues where we differ, never fear). That being said, I did ponder one aspect of Manzi’s characterization of science: that it makes non-obvious predictions. This is not controversial, and I don’t want to really quibble with it too much. But in the context of social science in particular I think one of the gains of ‘science’ is the clarification of obvious predictions.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, the inverse-square law defines the decay of the intensity of light from a radiation source. Is this non-obvious? The precise decay function isn’t obvious, but the general trend is clearly obvious. Intensity decreases with distance. We know this intuitively. But it is obviously a gain to quantitize and formalize this phenomenon, as it can then be integrated algebraically into a broader system.

And so it is with social science phenomena. For example, I can say that most of personality variation within a population is accounted for by genes and non-shared environment. But what does this mean? It could mean that 20% is accounted for by variation in genes and 60% by non-shared environment, with 40% shared environment. Or, it could mean that 40% is accounted for by variation in genes and 40% by non-shared environment, and 20% shared environment. These are not distinctions without difference. The ‘science’ here is less a counter-intuitive framework of prediction and projection than a clarification and precision of broad trends which might be unsurprising, with the ‘non-obvious’ aspect only coming to the fore when quantities are integrate into larger frameworks. So, for example the prediction that heritable inequality may actually increase when you maximize environmental inputs.

  • Florida resident

    Dear Mr. Khan !

    1. Best wishes and blessings to your daughter and her mother.
    (I quite understand that you probably do not need those from me, but still …)

    2. I would humbly advise you to use the verb “to decrease” instead of “to decay“, when speaking of intensity of light or wave flux from a point source.
    “Decay” is usually applied to something really being disintegrated or transformed into different form of matter. Examples of “decay”:

    decay of food;

    radioactive decay of one type of nucleus with the transformation into the other type;

    decay of sound signal of a guitar string being plucked abruptly, with the gradual transformation of vibration energy into thermal motion of the molecules in air or in the guitar body.

    The non-obvious part of diminishing of light intensity (emitted by a point source) with distance
    as 1/(distance)^2
    is our three-dimensional space, in which we observe this light. Product of intensity I [Watt / meter^2] times area of the sphere A = 4*pi*(distance)^2 is total power emitted, it does _not_ decay, but stays constant, in assumption of no intrinsic loss or gain of energy.


    2a. Waves from a point source in 2-dimensional case — waves on the water surface in a pool; their intensity I [watt / meter] decreases as 1/(distance).

    2b. Waves on the water surface generated by a ship moving with constant velocity — two-dimensional propagation, but the source of waves is spread along the trajectory of motion of the ship — _no_ decrease of wave intensity _at_all_ (by the way, that was the trick of detecting the direction towards a big ship beyond the visibility distance by a small torpedo boat during WW-2, in the absence of radar.)

    2c. Conical sound wave from descending supersonic Shuttle (I have heard it many times here in Florida) — three-dimensional propagation, but the source is spread along the line — along the trajectory of Shuttle — intensity decreases as 1 / (distance).

    2d. Intensity of light in optical fiber (used for communication) — one-dimensional propagation, no change of intensity with distance _at_all_ for about 10 kilometers (at longer distances one has to account for intrinsic loss and scattering.)

    2e. Intensity of light in fiber optical amplifier — it _increases_ with the distance, with energy supplied by external source of “pumping”.

    Your F.r.

  • Miley Cyrax

    “But in the context of social science in particular I think one of the gains of ‘science’ is the clarification of obvious predictions.”

    Yes, whenever someone is like “herp derp, like we needed scientists to tell us that!” I remind them that science is as much about confirming and elucidating upon things we already “know” as much as it is about making ground-breaking discoveries. Perhaps even more so.

  • Chris_T_T

    I would actually argue the opposite – science is all about testing the obvious.

    After all, the Sun obviously orbits the Earth and heavy objects obviously fall faster than lighter ones.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #3, lol.

  • omar

    #3, though as Wittgenstein memorably said: “what would it look like if the earth rotated”..(or words to that effect)

  • Jockaira

    Decay: lessening of effect, such as flogging a dead horse, or such as crushing a nit’s eggs individually with a ball-peen hammer as one finds them expecting that doing so will magically decrease the sum total of humanity’s woes, or such as restating the same point so many times in so many different ways that the expression “tl:dr” comes to mind shortly before losing ordinary human empathy for an apparent lonely person gasping the last breaths of a futile existence.

    I am an unsung genius…the tip jar is on the right side of my throne!


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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