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.