Why Soft Sciences Are Flawed and Good Solutions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Poor Charlie's Almanack" by Charles T. Munger. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are soft sciences? What is the problem with social sciences? 

Soft sciences are academic disciplines that seek to interpret human and societal behavior using qualitative analysis for which strictly measurable criteria may be impossible to establish. The problem with soft sciences is that the desire to achieve the level of precision in hard science has led to excessive complexity and the overuse of statistical models that ignore real elements of human behavior such as biases and vices.

Read on to learn more about the problems with soft sciences and how they can be fixed.

Problems with Soft Sciences

Munger believes that the most fundamental disciplines—say, math and physics—are much more rigorous than the soft sciences like economics and psychology. The soft sciences tend to be unorganized in their thinking and relish in complexity instead of elegant fundamentals.

Munger argues that soft sciences should integrate the ethos of hard sciences:

  • They should rank disciplines in order of fundamentalness, and use them in that order.
  • They should try to explain things in the fewest fundamental principles possible.
  • If the existing principles don’t explain the phenomena, new principles can be devised, but they should first be reconciled with the old principles or the old principles should be disproved.

Problems with Economics

For all its achievements, the field of economics has several key problems that limit their ability to explain the world.

  • It has what Munger calls “physics envy”—economists crave precision in their models and predictions, which leads to questionable principles like the idea that agents behave perfectly rationally in markets. They also overuse the statistical techniques they learn.
  • They thus tend to ignore elements of real human behavior, such as biases and vices. For instance, envy is a strong reason people spend money, and yet there is no way to integrate envy into economic models.

(Shortform note: The field of behavioral economics was a major effort to mix human psychology into economics and explain why people don’t act rationally in many situations. Read more about behavioral economics in our guide to Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Problems with Psychology

Psychologists have described a lot of useful ideas in biases and behavior, but the ideas tend to be isolated in siloes rather than unified in elegant models. As Munger says, psychology is in a state “like electromagnetism  after Faraday, but before Maxwell —a lot has been discovered, but no one mind has put it all together in proper form.”

Part of the problem is that psychology, in an effort to become a rigorous, respected discipline, engages in narrow, specific experiments that test a single idea so that the experiments are repeatable. This, however, ignores the complexity of real situations that involve multiple factors, like in Munger’s lollapaloozas.

Another problem is that Munger, to put it bluntly, believes that psychologists simply aren’t the smartest academics. The really talented people pursue hard fields like physics and math. After all, why would a very talented person with her choice of fields pick psychology, a field where the effects awkwardly grow weaker as people learn more about them (as in the case of biases)? Furthermore, what of the troubling idea that people are often happier when believing things that aren’t true?

Why Soft Sciences Are Flawed and Available Solutions

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Charles T. Munger's "Poor Charlie's Almanack" at Shortform.

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  • A collection of Charlie Munger’s best advice given over 30 years
  • Why you need to know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at to make decisions
  • Descriptions of the 25 psychological biases that distort how you see the world

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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