The Danger of Oversimplifying Extrapolation from the Sciences

This interesting tidbit, from Mechanics by John C. Slater and Nathaniel Frank (both of whom taught at MIT):

The existence of fundamental laws underlying the behavior or nature has furnished the guiding principle of natural science ever since.  It has also formed the basis of most modern thought in philosophy, political science, economics and the social sciences.  Newton’s laws, and the mechanical and astronomical phenomena which he explained by them, were fundamentally simple, and this simplicity led nonscientific interpreters of his principles to the erroneous view that the social and political sciences must be equally simple, an error that was widespread in the eighteenth century, and has persisted in some ways even to the present.  Newton himself never fell into this error.  As an experimental as well as a theoretical physicist, he well knew that there were many properties of nature other than those which he had explained: cohesion and interatomic and intermolecular forces, light with this phenomena of dispersion and interference and diffraction, and many others.  But he believed firmly that his laws of motion, as well as his general approach to the problems of physics, would prove to underlie these more complex aspects of nature as well as the simpler things that he was able to explain completely.  In this belief he was correct; and it is for that reason that our study of theoretical physics , of the principles underlying the behavior of nature, must begin with Newton.

First note: obviously the theory of relativity should change the authors’ centrality of Newton (and much of Slater’s research was in that theory of relativity.)  Newtonian mechanics are a special case of the general theory of relativity, but for the speeds the majority of objects move, Newtonian mechanics still rule.  And the advent of computer simulation, which break down systems into small (and often nonlinear) pieces, has vindicated Newton’s belief about the applicability of this theories into complex problems.

The author’s warning on extrapolating Newtonian (or any other physical theories) into the social sciences, especially when oversimplification is involved, is still valid.  Oversimplifying our problems is the speciality of democratic systems, and is especially easy–and dangerous–these days with social media.  Misusing scientific results is even easier and more dangerous, particularly when the real agenda of the misusers is different from the one they state.

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