Its Not Rocket Science

Back in January, Duncan Watts of Microsoft Research spoke at m6d’s ADSCON event at NYU.  Duncan has a unique view of the world having begun his career in the hard sciences (math and physics) and migrated to social sciences.  He quoted a passage from his book on the paradox of thinking rocket science requires brilliance but social science less so:

Typically people in these positions [public policy makers, marketers, economists] do not expect to get everything right all the time.  But they also feel that the problems they are contemplating are mostly within their ability to solve – that “it’s not rocket science,” as it were.  Well, I’m no rocket scientist, and I have immense respect for people who can land a machine the size of a small car on another planet.  But the sad fact is that we’re actually better at planning the flight path of an interplanetary rocket than we are at managing the economy, merging two corporations, or even predicting how many copies of a book will sell.  So why is that rocket science seems hard[?]

This is really interesting thought.  Rocket science is, clearly, very hard.  Rockets are complex systems but the physical laws governing the behavior of these systems are predictable and consistent.  People, and social interactions between them, are also made up of very complex systems but human behavior is anything but predictable and consistent.  Given this unpredictable nature, maybe it makes sense that studying human behavior in a scientific way is much harder than it is given credit for.