Hard & Soft Sciences–or perhaps the Simple and Complex Sciences..

My good friend Brent and I have had an ongoing discussion for many years about perceptions and labels for the sciences–i.e. the the natural and the social sciences.   In our society, the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology,..) are preeminent–and they also often are called the “Hard Sciences” in comparison to the squishy “Soft Sciences” of the social sciences (Economics, Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, …).

These labels have a history going back into the 19th century, and part of the meanings associated with the labels come from the notion that the mathematical rigor, testability, and overall durability of the results in the natural sciences is what made them “hard”–they provided stark, clear results that could be relied upon.

This hardness, of course, stood in contrast to–while co-creating–those “squishy” soft sciences whose results were so fleeting, and changeable.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Hard Sciences are seen as superior to the Soft Sciences in terms of cultural credibility and status.  Although the Hard Sciences themselves didn’t really become culturally powerful until WW2–when they were credited with all of the power of creating the first Atom Bomb–it’s clear in the history of the social sciences –which was one of my prelim fields–that there’s been a century long attempt by the Social Sciences to model themselves more and more on the Hard Sciences in order to be seen as serious

To many–this may seem natural and right–because when you look at the results of physics–it WORKS.   It seems so solid compared to research in something like psychology–which appears to be overthrown regularly and reinterpreted with a swiftness that often makes it seem more like a fad than a science.

At this point, I would stop and agree with the above to an extent. It is true that when you do physics work, the results you get are more controlled… less variable.  They stay put more. ( I love physics, I might add…. )

And that’s as fine as it goes.  But I would also like to point something important out–and that’s the fact that one of the essential traits of the hard sciences is that the objects of their study are–in many ways–relatively simple.

While this is most true of the hardest of sciences–physics–and becomes less true as you move to the more complicated chemistry and the very messy biology–the STUFF that they study  is simple in that it is just stuff.   It is matter–and quite often–it’s abstracted matter or mathematical models of small amounts of matter.

Atoms, Quarks, neutrinos, etc.

Or it’s huge masses of matter that you cannot actually grasp–stars, black wholes, galaxies–but when it’s this kind of physics–it is always just simplified accounts of it.

While working with this kind of stuff is certainly hard, it is important to note that this stuff is always just an object of study.

It is never a subject.

Think about it–what if atoms could have moods.  What if the same types of atoms–say Oxygen atoms—communicated with other atoms differently as English-Speakers do?   Or if how they related to other atoms changed over time based on laws that other atoms could create or remove at will?

What if atoms COULD LIE?

In a sense–just dealing with atoms is simple.  Chemists do have it harder–as they work more with molecules/compounds/mixtures—and biologists have it even harder.

But OHMYFUCKINGGOD–what about scientists studying subjects who lie to them–sometimes without knowing why–who change their minds, whose backgrounds are never exactly the same and who can learn to change their behaviors.  Who may change their responses to people based on cultural assumptions that vary from place to place?

That shit is REALLY FUCKING COMPLEX–and it makes coming up with results a lot more complicated.

In summation- I think there are a couple of important take home messages here:

1. One could say that an equally valid way to talk about these sciences is to talk about the “Simple Sciences” (natural) and the “Complex Sciences” (social).  This might frame these two different approaches to studying reality in a way that complements and balances the Hard vs Soft labels that we’ve had for so long.

2. One of the key differences that make the complex (social) sciences so difficult is that they have to deal with diversity IN THE MOST SERIOUS WAY POSSIBLE.  There is genetic diversity (also in Bio), experiential diversity, cultural diversity, intellectual diversity, and the last three kinds of diversity all “mutate” with a rapidity that would drive even the most complex simple scienstist (i.e. a biologist) batty.

3. Social Scientists have to take diversity in the subjects that they study seriously, or else they are going to miss so much.  Reflecting on this, having people in these complex sciences try to be more like the simple sciences–where they don’t have the same issues–can only really hurt them.  When psychologists try to pidgeonhole people in super-controlled experiments and try to turn them into human atoms–they are not going to get a lot of useful stuff. And attempts at “replication” in these ways are going to be mostly futile–because the numbers of variables that really at play are in the 1000’s at the very least–and most are just abstracted out of existence and ignored to do this work.

3. Similarly–aspiring to the mathematization of these Complex sciences so that computers  (big data!) can just come up with calculated correlations for people is going to lead to “garbage in, garbage out” type of situations more often than not.

4.  Since I’ve studied the history of engineering pretty in depth, I would also note that for all the disdain that engineering has from the sciences–how tacky, mundane, and impure engineering is compared to the abstractions and elegance of science–the same kind of thing is going on here.

Engineers don’t deal with idealized atoms connected to 3 other atoms–they deal with trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of different kinds of atoms thrown together in no discernible pattern that are interacting via imperfect, random, and “flawed” surfaces that make calculations and formulas impossible unless you’re just trying to get statistical and measured results–rather than calculated answers.
For this–engineering is disdained–but it’s in the acceptance of the diversity of matter and working with the matter as it is–rather than how you want to idealize it–that actual things are created.

And now.. I’m spent.  Time to do some push-ups.

About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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