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  • Jose Arrieta

What if the Universe's Laws Changed With Time? Ask a Social Scientist

In social science laws are malleable. This is a big ontological change from the character of law in natural sciences.: i.e., stable truths. In social science, laws "should never be influenced by the weather of the day but inevitably they will be influenced by the climate of the era.” This malleability is surprising and probably the main reason I remain in social science.


Whereas in natural science Copernicus, Newton, Maxwell, Schrödinger, Feynman, Hubble and a couple dozen others had the chance to discover the few laws our universe follows. In social science, new laws are published on a weekly basis. And not trivial laws. As my advisor used to say "[social] sciences are soft. Soft like a brick" and much deadlier.


Were you to design a car from scratch, you could come up with many forms and functionalities. Indeed, many types of cars have existed. Car design adapts to what the technology frontier can provide and what our society requires from them. Yet, no car will ever be a perpetuo mobile. No car will provide more energy that it uses. As Homer said "in this [universe] we obey the laws of thermodynamics!".


Physical laws, such as the laws of thermodynamics, were indeed socially constructed. But physical laws are not social constructs. These laws were not created by our society and they would be followed independent of the social processed that led us to their discovery. As Daniel Levithan and a slew of atheist scientist like to remind us: "Ultimately, the universe doesn't care about us. [Thermodynamics] does not care about us." Neil deGrasse Tyson adds: "The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you." It exist independent of our feelings.


Yet, Levithan's quote ends: "That's why we have to care about each other." Therein lies the beauty of social science. We can uncover the mysteries of the atom. We can marvel at the uncovered beauty of math. We can use them to build wonders and use them to make blunders. Nuclear energy by lowering the amount of pollution has saved more lives than it has taken. But it has taken an unexcusable amount of lives.


Ultimately, physical laws exist. We can build civilizations around them. We can destroy civilizations with them. As Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind: "there [are] two times for making big money, one in the upbuilding of a country and the other in its destruction." Natural sciences does not care but social science can. And the hidden with that verb lies a caleidoscope of marvels and perils.


In that sense social science is like playing an RPG game. Your character is immersed in an universe. It has laws and your actions have repercussions but ultimately the players decide which way their roles will take. The universe is stable but the characters evolves. In your agency lies the fate of the universe.


In management, my sandbox of choice, people can try out new things. If they work they can barricade people from joining them in their pursuits. There is little profit in being the company that followed amazon.com in building a online bookstore. There was little money for the seven (?) stores that sold booms online before amazon com. Amazon.com changed the laws of our social universe. And that social reality is just bonkers to me.


It is this evolutionary nature of social science that marvels me. And true, outside of physics, in the other natural sciences, evolution is a bigger thing (cue HMS Beagle). Yet, there is little choice in most "natural" evolutionary theories. Things happen in a Darwinian manner. Yet, agency and strategy abound in management and other highly applied social sciences. But as the trope goes with strategic agency comes great responsibility and "that's why we have to care about each other."

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