Theories Are Like Maps / by Cristian Mitreanu

Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo, both professors at the University of Rochester and authors of the new book "A Model Discipline: Political Science and the Logic of Representations," recently wrote an interesting NYT piece on the need to overcome "physics envy" in social sciences. Here are some good excerpts:

Many social scientists contend that science has a method, and if you want to be scientific, you should adopt it. The method requires you to devise a theoretical model, deduce a testable hypothesis from the model and then test the hypothesis against the world. If the hypothesis is confirmed, the theoretical model holds; if the hypothesis is not confirmed, the theoretical model does not hold. If your discipline does not operate by this method — known as hypothetico-deductivism — then in the minds of many, it’s not scientific. [...]

But we believe that this way of thinking is badly mistaken and detrimental to social research. For the sake of everyone who stands to gain from a better knowledge of politics, economics and society, the social sciences need to overcome their inferiority complex, reject hypothetico-deductivism and embrace the fact that they are mature disciplines with no need to emulate other sciences.

The ideal of hypothetico-deductivism is flawed for many reasons. For one thing, it’s not even a good description of how the “hard” sciences work. It’s a high school textbook version of science, with everything messy and chaotic about scientific inquiry safely ignored.
— Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo
To borrow a metaphor from the philosopher of science Ronald Giere, theories are like maps: the test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.
— Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo