My new year’s resolution: More curmudgeonliness

Benjamin Bederson, physics professor emeritus at NYU, has a letter in today’s NY Times magazine:

As a physicist myself, I read with great interest Jonah Lehrer's article about Geoffrey West, who is interested in developing a general theory of cities from first principles. Physicists €” myself included €” are intrigued by the idea that application of rigorous laws in the world of natural science can inspire similar applications in other areas, including social ones.

It may be true that methods from the natural sciences can be fruitfully applied in the social sciences, but as a matter of diplomacy I’d rather physicists refrained from “we’re rigorous and you’re not” language.  Whether or not it’s true, I don’t think it’s helpful.

But that’s not what bothers me about this letter.  He goes on to say

This quest has been going on for a long time: for example, the efforts to apply the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to human behavior.

This would be fine, if he went on to clarify that “efforts to apply the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to human behavior” are utterly stupid and pointless.  In fact, he seems to think precisely the opposite, namely that such efforts are a good example of the use of natural-science ideas in the social sciences.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is often used as a metaphor, sometimes to convey the banal notion that it’s often hard to measure stuff, and sometimes to convey the slightly more interesting idea that measurements affect the system being measured.  I suppose that what Bederson means by “apply[ing] the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to human behavior” is simply that when you survey people the act of surveying them has an effect on them.  That’s true, but it’s much less interesting than the actual Heisenberg uncertainty principle.   It’s also such an obvious idea that it’s downright insulting to suggest that social scientists needed physicists’ help to figure it out.

Published by

Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

6 thoughts on “My new year’s resolution: More curmudgeonliness”

  1. The mathematical analog to the Uncertainty Principle is the Incompleteness Theorem. Fortunately, fewer people try to apply Incompleteness outside mathematical logic. Probably because there’s no snappy one-sentence summary for laymen. (“Any useful system will have holes”?)

  2. Maybe you are being too generous by accepting the use of HUP as a metaphor for observer effects. I thought they were unrelated (and Wikipedia backs me up: “The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is also frequently confused with the “observer effect”. The uncertainty principle actually describes how precisely we may measure the position and momentum of a particle at the same time €” if we increase the precision in measuring one quantity, we are forced to lose precision in measuring the other. Thus, the uncertainty principle deals with measurement, and not observation.”)

  3. Yes, standard examples miss the point. For example, if I measure tyre pressure, some air escapes, thus the real pressure is different. First, one could conceivably measure the pressure without having air escape. Second, one can correct for the effect. Third, what I am measuring is what I am disturbing. Fourth, this has nothing to do with quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, one cannot, for fundamental reasons, make a non-disturbing measurement. Second, one cannot correct for the disturbance. Third, it is an inherently quantum-mechanical effect. Fourth, what one disturbs is NOT what one measures—which can be measured with arbitrary accuracy—but rather the canonically conjugated quantity. Such examples are much, much more trouble than they are worth.

    Of course, in general, applying QM to sociology reeks of Fritjof-Capra nonsense. Yes, societies consists of people, people consists of atoms and atoms are governed by QM, but this does not mean that there are any macroscopic quantum effects. (Interestingly, Capra wants to use QM as a route to a “holistic” worldview, in contrast to reductionism. But his argument, outlined, in the previous sentence, itself uses reductionism.)

  4. Perhaps they mean the commutation relation (a mathematical relationship that might have use in non quantum systems) instead of the uncertainty principle (a physical phenomenon restricted to quantum systems)? This could happen when dealing with the coupling of two observables related to the population, where one is proportional to the population, like GDP, and the other to population growth (like diseases, maybe). Just a thought, since I have no idea when you’d have to commute social observables, but it seems easy to me to see that media non-experts would get the two (the commutation relation and the uncertainty principle) confused. I guess Dr. Bederson has no excuse either way, other than a misplaced effort to simplify for the audience.

Comments are closed.