Physicist Alan Sokal made headlines in 1996 when he perpetrated a hoax on a prestigious sociology journal, filling an article with scientific mumbo-jumbo that passed through editors’ eyes and into publication. The hoax was intended to spotlight what he called a troubling “decline in the standards of intellectual rigor.”
Now he’s struck again — but this time, he’s not hoaxing anyone. Rather, he and a pair of co-authors have penned a new paper that slams a psychology theory for using bad math.
In the paper, the trio critique an application of what psychologists call the “positivity ratio” — the ratio of a person’s positive feelings to his/her negative feelings. In 2005, two psychologists wrote that people “flourish” if the ratio meets or exceeds 2.9 — that is, if positive emotions occur at least three times as often as negative ones. A pretty intuitive concept in the abstract sense, but one Sokal and his co-authors say cannot be described by the equations the psychologists borrowed from physics.
“We find no theoretical or empirical justification for the use of differential equations drawn from fluid dynamics, a subfield of physics, to describe changes in human emotions over time,” the trio wrote in their article. “Furthermore, we demonstrate that the purported application of these equations contains numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors.”
So does that mean complex math has no place in the social sciences?
“Of course it is possible that equations drawn from subfields of physics might be applicable in other fields, including psychology,” Nick Brown, one of Sokal’s co-authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. “But in order to make such a claim, you need to demonstrate why those particular equations fit the psychological problem under study.”
The trio’s article, “The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking: The Critical Positivity Ratio,” was published online July 15, 2013 in American Psychologist.