Theorists need to be careful when they borrow ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, interdisciplinarity is great. It is one of my most beloved hobbies and a well-spring of novel metaphors. However, upon its employ come attendant a set of very concrete responsibilities, not least among them the obligation to carry forward uncertainty. The idea is a common one, and I’ll borrow (interdisciplinarily) a metaphor from business to show what I mean.
Suppose I deal in diamonds. In part, the value of the diamonds I buy and sell is determined by weight. So, of course, I have a scale. This scale is accurate to plus or minus two milligrams. In other words, if it says a diamond weighs 1 gram (That’s a big rock.), it means that the diamond weighs between 0.998 and 1.002 grams. Now suppose I want to translate that weight into a price. Let’s say the price of (good quality) diamonds is 25,000 dollars per gram (a low number, I think). Then the diamond is worth somewhere between 24,950 and 25, 050 dollars. Especially in the aggregate, those unknown milligrams may cost me a lot of money if I fail to account for them. However, at issue is not merely profit, but honesty. In the calculation, my uncertainty as to the weight of the diamond must be carried over into my uncertainty as to the worth of the diamond. If I said to my customer that I know that the diamond is worth exactly 25,000 dollars, I would be lying. It would be a fair price, but not a truthful report of the diamond’s worth.
I think the same idea has to apply to interdisciplinary studies as well. It’s fine to borrow a concept from one discipline to help explain something in another. However, if there is uncertainty as to the validity of that concept in the first discipline, then that uncertainty must (unless it can be explained away in that particular setting) be carried over as well. Furthermore, the danger that the uncertainty will be magnified (as when milligrams amount to hundreds of dollars) in the course of its integration into a new discipline demands consideration.
Increasingly, ideas from mathematics and theoretical physics are being borrowed for use in the social sciences. Great. This makes me happy. Everyone should read more math: It’s good for us. However, it seems to me, especially in the case of ideas borrowed from theoretical physics, that the uncertainty surrounding the validity or utility of some of these ideas in their native disciplines is not being carried over into the disciplines that borrow them. This I do not like.
Of course there are cases when a fanciful or striking idea is merely being used as a metaphorical tool, not to influence the real workings of an idea or theory, but merely as another way of understanding it. In other words, when an idea is borrowed purely as a figurative device, as a descriptor or an aid to understanding but not as a concrete addition to theory, the obligation to carry uncertainty is relaxed. If, however, one desires to integrate an idea from one discipline into the very heart of another, then all of the uncertainty must come with it and must figure into the conceived predictive power (or weakness) of the new, integrated theory.
Here’s a concrete example:
In his paper, “Quantum Holographic Critical Criminology” Dragan Milovanovic argues for a “Kuhnian paradigm shift” in criminology from a “classical-materialist” paradigm to a “process-information” paradigm (24). The proposal is a fascinating one built around a post-Lacanian bit of Mobius architecture Milovanovic calls “Schema QD” (17). I cannot admit to a full understanding of Schema QD, but I do not intend it to criticize it per se. Rather, I want to point to what seem to me to be flaws in its presentation. The schema grows out of an attempt to integrate quantum holographics, not metaphorically, but “isomorphically” into a process-information paradigm of criminology (2). This seems to me to be a precarious starting point. To propose an isomorphism, we must allow point to point mapping between all elements of two sets. Even if Milovanovic is applying the word loosely, we must expect a very high degree of correlation between the elements of quantum holographics and criminological theory. Let us accept this high degree of correlation without question. I certainly, am not qualified to question it.
Even in unquestioningly assuming an isomorphism between quantum holographic theory and critical criminological theory, we must then carry all the uncertainty of the former discipline into the latter. This uncertainty is, I think, much greater than Milovanovic makes it out to be. He offers the following sanguine interpretation:
“Much of quantum theory is still not well understood. It has been called a weird science. Nevertheless, since its inception in the 1920s, no major experiment has contradicted its core propositions. … Quantum holographic theory is offering new understandings well understood in other disciplines. It is time for the process-information paradigm to be addressed in criminology…” (24).
Contrast this with Hrvoje Nikolic in his paper “Quantum Mechanics: Myths and facts.”
"… why [are] the myths in QM are so numerous? Of course, one of the reasons is certainly the fact that we still do not completely understand QM at the most fundamental level. However, this fact by itself does not explain [the presence of myths]. … To ﬁnd a deeper reason, let me ﬁrst note that the results collected and reviewed in this paper show that the source of disagreement among physicists on the validity of various myths is not of mathematical origin, but of conceptual one." (43)
Central to Nikolic’s point is that theoretical physicists, in their zeal, conflate arguments with facts, and that the uncertainties in quantum mechanics are considerable. This does not refute Milovanovic – the core of quantum theory is indeed intact -- but this foundational core does not seem to produce what I would call sufficient evidence to justify a “Kuhnian revolution” in criminology based on the theory of quantum holographics, something Nikolic cautiously refers to as a “possible reinterpretation” of the relation between entropy and surface area (of black holes) before he states that “a clear general physical description of the conjectured holographic principle…is still missing” (Nikolic 43).
It seems unfair then for Milovanovic to argue so strongly for the isomorphic integration of this “conjectured principle” into criminology without admitting that it carries with it a great deal of uncertainty. Of course it is, after all, rather difficult to get up close and personal with black holes, and so we can excuse a great deal of conjecture in the theories addressing them. Can we tolerate a similar level of conjecture in a new “quantum holographic critical criminology?”
The answer is not necessarily no. Milovanovic makes a good point when he notes that the statistical correlations contemporary criminology often relies upon are generally quite weak. Perhaps uncertainty is simply an unhappy fact of social science. But if it is, we must face it head on, and enter into our speculations with the reserve such ontological uncertainty demands.
So let me be clear in my conclusion. I am not opposed to what Milovanovic has done. Indeed, I find it intriguing, but I wish that he and others who share his penchant for serious interdisciplinary theoretical borrowing would make clear the level of uncertainty such exchanges entail.