Hard and Soft Sciences

Physics cat prefers to sit on something soft (a biology textbook)
So this March 3rd I was reading an excellent blog post about the hard and soft sciences (linked) and, well...it made me think, which is always good. In particular it made me think about what hard and soft science mean to me.

I think I wrote a little before on the sciences and humanities and on linking things, so I'm not particularly averse to the soft sciences. I don't think they're evil, and I think they're important. (I do confess to preferring hard sciences, though, because they deal with data that is more easily quantified.) Actually, I'm pretty sure anyone who participates in the endless "my chosen discipline is better than yours" debate is wrong.

Hear engineering students whining about physics class; laugh because they'll never take organic chemistry
Yes, even if they're a physicist.

That blog definitely gave me pause for thought: I think often a lot of us in the hard sciences think our disciplines are better because we can use more quantifiable data (before anyone starts crying about the tyranny of numbers here, the problem with quantifying data comes when you start off with qualitative data, because we're still using methods more suited to quantitative data with qualitative data and it's not working). That said, I've seen what the soft sciences think of as a strong correlation and coming from a hard science background, where much stronger correlation is needed for people to pay attention, I do get quite worried. I get worried because as the original blog post says, when societies and economies mess up, people die. So if someone there gets the science wrong then...yeah, you can see what's going to happen. At the same time, though, you could apply the criticism of "if we get science wrong then people die" to pretty much every scientific field: sorry to insult people's intelligence here, but typing out a blog post requires a computer, some way to input and output things, and a way to put data on the internet. Sociologists can study how our societies have changed with the advent of the internet and psychologists can study technology's effects on the human psyche, but we wouldn't have had computers without hard science.

Humanities major complains about work load; laugh bitterly
That would matter slightly less if we didn't rely on technology for basically everything. That said, we'd still need to design efficient infrastructure and study the role technology plays in society - which is where soft sciences come in. I suppose the point I'm trying to make here - the point I've been trying to make for a very long time - is that it's not about which science is somehow better (especially since I don't see the divisions between sciences, or between the sciences and the humanities, particularly clearly), it's about trying to use every field to study and analyse everything, hopefully to make the world a better place but also just for the sheer thrill of learning.

Yea but what "is" and electron? [sic] Go take a philosophy course.
I won't argue that "soft sciences" isn't a pejorative term, because it is: it's a term used by people who work in more traditional, quantitative fields to distinguish their work from that of people who work in newer, more qualitative fields - fields that are often fiendishly complex and chaotic, even with algorithms and equations to help.

They're wrong. We're wrong. Anyone who thinks some field is below them is wrong. Trust me on this one: as a physics student, my subject is supposedly harder and better than biology.

Biology is definitely not below me, by which I mean I suck at it. Same with psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics and any other field you choose to quiz me on apart from Latin literature.

Psych major asks which days you get off; laugh bitterly
In the end, though, I'm still a hard-science snob: from what I've seen, there's more rigour in the hard sciences than the soft ones (someone might need to come up with non-pejorative terms for these two overly broad categories), a rigour I admire because I think well-defined logic is essential to coming up with a correct conclusion - or at least, in the real world, a conclusion that's more likely to be correct.

I'd let you go off and sulk now, but at the same time I can't ignore what I've learned from the humanities. Yes, you heard me right: I'm a physics nerd, yet I learnt from the humanities?! Shock! (And a cookie for anyone who gets the reference in that link.)

Take biology because it doesn't need maths; lol chi squared test
I did learn a lot from the humanities: I learnt the obvious but often overlooked lesson that not everything can or should be quantified. It sounds strange for a hard scientist to say - after all, the stereotype goes that we drool over numbers and want to rank everything. Such may be the stereotype, and such may be the way things are done, but I don't think it's good science - not when you're trying to sum up many different qualitative factors in one quantitative measure. Personally, I think we need to invent different ways to handle qualitative data - but no-one listens to me, usually for very good reasons.

I learnt another lesson, too: that of being able to step back and look at the whole picture. I'm not going to draw yet another false dividing line between the sciences and the humanities, saying that one concentrates on minutiae and the other on the general situation, but studying soft subjects certainly helped me to be able to link things - which necessitates being able to look at the big picture.

Everything I had to say I said before: let's end this division between hard and soft sciences. Let's stop pretending one is better than the other. Let's stop talking about woo and ivory towers and weird academic hard-ons, and let's start trying to work out what to do with the data we have to make the world a less shitty place.

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