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'Soft' and 'Hard' Sciences, always adversaries?


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I wanted to start a thread and pose a couple questions to you guys, folks in the soft sciences, hard sciences and humanities. I'm a recently accepted graduate student in the social sciences and over the last year or so I've gotten into more debates about the legitimacy of the social sciences. The debates tend to start when I'm having a conversation and I indicate I have found something to be true (e.g.: I found that crime at a park was not randomly distributed in space, but concentrated at a problematic area), or when someone explains that they value the natural sciences more so than the social sciences. I can accept that not everyone is going to have a passion for the things I have a passion for, but it is at times infuriating to hear a fellow college student make supremely ignorant remarks about whether the hard sciences are more useful than the soft or something of that nature.

 

My intention about starting this thread isn't to start some sort of academic civil war, but to ask a few questions for people who have more experience than I do as current, or aspiring, researchers or scientists; regardless of whether your science is more akin to chemistry and biology or psychology and sociology.

 

Is the argument between natural and social scientists of little consequence in the work place? Is this a discussion I should expect to have throughout the course of my studies and after? 

 

What are your guys' experience with the subject of discipline rivalry or citizen skepticism of the usefulness of academics?

 

 

Thank you for any feedback you guys have, I just want to get some idea of if this is an isolated incident or something I should anticipate for many years to come.

Edited by Sword_Saint
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I have found that these distinctions or "rivalries" are petty and mostly seen in undergrad. I admit that when I was a first year college student, I also thought my discipline was more rigorous and somehow "better" than the soft sciences or humanities. But that was when I was dumber, more naive and well, looking for a way to "belong" and for better or for worse, one of the ways we try to identify a group we "belong" to, is to identify the "other". As I matured through undergrad, these rivalries diminished and I rarely see this come up as a graduate student ever. I would say that graduate students in the social sciences/humanities and natural sciences all have a lot more in common than they do differences. Through working on cross-campus committees and student groups (e.g. student government, labour unions etc.) I now have a view that our disciplines is just something we do, it doesn't define who we are. There's no point, in my opinion, to compare the "usefulness" of our work, because we all have different ways we contribute to advancing human knowledge.

 

If it helps you to know, there is even sub-discipline "rivalries" within the natural sciences. Some physicists do not consider astronomers as "real" physicists even though we have the same undergrad training. Or some will consider our work as "not useful" because they view astronomy like "stamp collecting", that is, we don't come up with new fundamental ideas about physics, but instead just finding ways to apply what the "real physicists" learn to the universe we observe. Sometimes this is just petty and annoying but it can actually have harmful consequences. For example, some astronomy graduate programs that are in a Physics department will require the grad students to take advanced and difficult Physics courses that have nothing to do with our research just because they think we should do some "real Physics" before we can get a PhD. It's a waste of people's time and I know some great astronomers that end up having a hard time passing Quantum Field Theory and delaying their graduation date by a year or two for no good reason!!

 

Finally, just to comment on your statistical example, I do have a pet peeve: I dislike it when people say something like "I have scientifically, definitively found something to be true" because I don't think these statements are possible. Instead, I prefer the framework of something like "We found that crime at a park is not randomly distributed with 95% certainty" or something to that effect. I would also consider myself a "Bayesian statistician" and in the Bayesian framework, we don't think of things are "true" or "not true" but rather "the probability distribution of X is ...." In particular, if I want to pick stereotypes, I find that the social sciences tend to use arbitrary cutoffs like "p < 0.05" to signal "truth" and that these arbitrary cutoffs are just that -- arbitrary. And, I think sometimes people consider something like p=0.07 as "proving the null hypothesis" but really, a p=0.07 still means the null hypothesis is unlikely, but just not unlikely enough to meet an arbitrary standard for rejection. Instead, I would prefer to see researchers (in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities) to report their results as they are (e.g. p=0.07, or the odds ratio of hypothesis A over hypothesis B is X) rather than relying on arbitrary cutoffs.

 

However, while I wrote about my philosophy of science in the last paragraph above, I do not mean to say it is the only correct way to think about statistics. In fact, I recognize that there can be more than one interpretation of statistics/data and that I do not think there is necessarily only one correct way to do it. I obviously have my preference, but I am aware that my preference might not be the best (or only) correct way :)

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Finally, just to comment on your statistical example, I do have a pet peeve: I dislike it when people say something like "I have scientifically, definitively found something to be true" because I don't think these statements are possible. Instead, I prefer the framework of something like "We found that crime at a park is not randomly distributed with 95% certainty" or something to that effect. I would also consider myself a "Bayesian statistician" and in the Bayesian framework, we don't think of things are "true" or "not true" but rather "the probability distribution of X is ...." In particular, if I want to pick stereotypes, I find that the social sciences tend to use arbitrary cutoffs like "p < 0.05" to signal "truth" and that these arbitrary cutoffs are just that -- arbitrary. And, I think sometimes people consider something like p=0.07 as "proving the null hypothesis" but really, a p=0.07 still means the null hypothesis is unlikely, but just not unlikely enough to meet an arbitrary standard for rejection. Instead, I would prefer to see researchers (in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities) to report their results as they are (e.g. p=0.07, or the odds ratio of hypothesis A over hypothesis B is X) rather than relying on arbitrary cutoffs.

This is what it is for me. I don't think "soft" sciences have no value or any nonsense like that, but it does irk me when anyone claims to have definitively proven anything with statistics. Certainly something can be said from these results, but "definitively proven" is an overstatement.

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I think these distinctions aren't that important but, I also work in an interdisciplinary field. Which is to say that I am a social scientist who works along with natural scientists all the time, in addition to folks in the "soft" and "hard" social sciences. Getting into debates about the value of these different fields is a timesuck unworthy of your time.

 

That said, there are real academic battles between the natural and social sciences, in no small part because universities, legislators, and governors are privileging the former over the latter when it comes to resources and funding. These battles do matter for departments and thus ultimately for undergraduate and graduate students. 

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Forgive me for the poor phrasing there. The conversation I was having prior to posting the thread was with an individual who thought my research methodology didn't include statistics or instrumentation or any form of scientific method. I explained confidence intervals and statistical significance to them, but for brevity (and out of frustration) I poorly phrased that here.  

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Forgive me for the poor phrasing there. The conversation I was having prior to posting the thread was with an individual who thought my research methodology didn't include statistics or instrumentation or any form of scientific method. I explained confidence intervals and statistical significance to them, but for brevity (and out of frustration) I poorly phrased that here.  

It's not really directed at you, people say that kind of thing all the time.

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There are some people who will never accept "soft" sciences or social sciences for the simple reason that it is very difficult to come up with any laws or properties from them(as opposed to say physics or mathematics). At the start of my thesis (my undergraduate background is in psychology) I realized just how difficult it would be to have a sound experiment that I was satisfied with. Why? because there are just so many possibilities for things to go wrong when you're dealing with people, you can't control everything on the same level as you would  be able to, if you were a biologist or chemist or a physicist. So naturally, mathematicians or physicist or what have you may come up and say "do you know how difficult it is to really prove something? and we have so much more control over our experiments", personally, I can clearly see why people may be skeptical about social sciences. 

That being said, I do think the social sciences are in fact a science unlike our friend Richard Feynman here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZaw0KVMl-o

 

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That said, there are real academic battles between the natural and social sciences, in no small part because universities, legislators, and governors are privileging the former over the latter when it comes to resources and funding. These battles do matter for departments and thus ultimately for undergraduate and graduate students. 

 

This is a good point -- I was focussing on whether people thought the research work itself was "valid" or not. But there is definitely tension when it comes to things like resources and funding. For example, when I was involved in the TA labour union at my previous graduate school, I learned a lot about the differences in the way graduate students are treated in the social sciences and humanities. Although we (the Union) always tried to present the need for unionization as a way to raise our colleagues in less-funded fields to get fair/equitable treatment as the natural science students, one of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome (in addition to the University) was convincing the natural science students to be on board. At best, many natural science students felt that since they did not benefit from the union, they were not interested and at worst, many natural science students feared losing their benefits because they felt funding was a zero-sum game (not necessarily true). 

 

So I experienced a lot of natural science vs. social science/humanities animosity during my time as a union representative for a natural science department. I think this is too bad, because the real enemy is the people making the decision to poorly fund all of us, and not each other. Also, a lot of what the union was fighting for was not even financial and not things that would take away from the natural sciences (for example, laying out a fair and transparent protocol for assigning TAships, which apparently was a big problem in one of the social science/humanities department in particular).

 

That is, there were battles but not because the natural scientists didn't believe/trust the research of the social sciences/humanities, but because in a world where resources are scarce, a lot of people just want to look out for themselves. There were even some battles between engineering/applied sciences and "pure" (not meant to indicate any type of superiority, just "not-applied") sciences as in general, the engineering/applied fields were even better funded than the pure natural sciences.

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The inherently problematic distinction between different areas of learning - "soft" is unequivocally a pejorative - enters common usage in the mid to late 60s. This is also the time at which women begin making serious inroads into the "soft" sciences. This is not a coincidence. 

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I go to great lengths to avoid using "hard" and "soft" sciences, as I feel they're pretty loaded terms. I can understand why a sociology or anthropology person would get angry if I referred to their discipline as "soft science". At the same time, there are stark differences between the natural/physical and social sciences; many of the experiments entomologists do on insects would be Class A felonies to perform on people. Social sciences can give us explanations for human behaviors that would make an evolutionary biologist scream, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING THAT'S NO WAY TO PASS ON YOUR GENES".

 

I'm by no means a pacifist in this "battle"; I've poked a few jabs at some social science major friends of mine (pointing out how surveys can be designed to produce the result that best fits your ideology), and they've accused me of being an unfeeling robot who would kill 1000 people to save one species of springtail from extinction. I've also gotten into many a nature-vs-nurture debate/poo-flinging war with said social science major friends. And I think in that aspect, the natural and social sciences will always be at odds where they produce differing explanations for things, namely human society and behavior, at least until we get some decent interdisciplinary research that reconciles them.

 

Last summer I was part of a group of biology undergrads who had received summer research fellowships from our department. Every week we would meet to read and discuss Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. At one of these meetings, the professor leading the discussion mentioned that Diamond's work had received criticism by historians on the grounds of it implicating environmental differences in causing differences in the development of human society and technology. That really stuck in my mind, because as a biologist, it's a no-brainer to me that the environment (environment in the GGS case mostly meaning resident flora and fauna, i.e. the presence of nutritious crops and domesticable animals) could and would influence such things.

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the natural and social sciences will always be at odds where they produce differing explanations for things, namely human society and behavior, at least until we get some decent interdisciplinary research that reconciles them.

 

Last year I was in an interdisciplinary "Biobehavioral Criminology" course, which had criminology, psychology and biology students. Most of the course was pretty strictly about biological explanations for the causes of crime and it was always interesting to hear the biology students give differing accounts than the crim. students. Some of the best courses I've been a part of so far were interdisciplinary and I at least would be more than happy to see that become more popular. 

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Every week we would meet to read and discuss Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. At one of these meetings, the professor leading the discussion mentioned that Diamond's work had received criticism by historians on the grounds of it implicating environmental differences in causing differences in the development of human society and technology.

 

Most historians (myself included) absolutely hate GG&S, and the critique is a bit more nuanced than you've given. Historians are generally very willing to include non-human factors into the flow of events; see the works of Henri Pirenne for starters, and more recently that of Michael McCormick and Sam White, all of whom have looked at the historical impact of climate. With respect to Diamond, certainly a culture without ready access to iron deposits will look and develop differently than one which has them. This does not, however, mean that culture is more predisposed to conquest, exploration, or domination. 

 

The example I most often use in discussing GG&S and the dangers of generalist history is that of what is known to medievalists as the Ullmann-Barraclough debate. Ullmann’s thesis, argued in Growth of Papal Government and elsewhere, is that, from the fall of Rome in 476 to the Council of Trent in 1555, the papacy was driven by the goal of absolute spiritual and temporal hegemony over all of Christendom. Ullmann argued persuasively, and we do indeed see a gradual rise in papal power, first spiritual, then temporal, culminating in the pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216), after which the papacy overreached itself and began to wane. However, Ullmann is only half the story. His contemporary, Geoffery Barraclough, argued the opposite, that the papacy had no overarching papal plan, and that the papacy acquired its increased powers quite by accident. 

 

Both Ullmann and Barraclough took the generalist approach. But in the end, neither Ullmann nor Barraclough was right. In 1979, Jeffery Richards published a book entitled The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages (476-752). By choosing a relatively short timeframe, from the fall of Rome to the final removal of Byzantine power from Italy, and examining the pontificate of each pope in depth, Richards demonstrated that Ullmann was wrong: the papacy had no overarching policy to increase its power, either in the temporal realm or the spiritual. However, Richards also showed that Barraclough was wrong: papal policy was not random, but was governed by the overarching goal. The guiding principle of papal policy was not the increase of its own power, but the resistance to the imposition of any outside authority, first against the Eastern and then the Holy Roman Empire. In other words, through detailed historical study Richards did find a guiding principle, but it was not one that we could see when looking at the larger picture.

 

When looking at Diamond’s rather roughshod treatment of the historical narrative, I was confronted by the question: how much does this matter? After all, despite his errors and strange sources, his overarching narrative felt intuitively correct and useful. Richards, I think, provides the answer: if the broad narrative is not set on a foundation of precise microhistory, we run a serious risk that it is simply the confirmation of our existing biases.

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Last summer I was part of a group of biology undergrads who had received summer research fellowships from our department. Every week we would meet to read and discuss Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. At one of these meetings, the professor leading the discussion mentioned that Diamond's work had received criticism by historians on the grounds of it implicating environmental differences in causing differences in the development of human society and technology. That really stuck in my mind, because as a biologist, it's a no-brainer to me that the environment (environment in the GGS case mostly meaning resident flora and fauna, i.e. the presence of nutritious crops and domesticable animals) could and would influence such things.

I don't know who said that, but sounds like how a scientist would characterize a historian's criticisms of guns, germs, and steel, although maybe I could imagine a cultural historian saying that if he was pressed for time. But environmental history is a big part of the discipline, and many, including luminaries such as Donald Worster, argue that culture is an adaptation to nature. 

 

The criticism of GG&S, as far as I know, come in three veins.

 

One, geographical determinism obscures the consequences of human decisions. From this perspective, every shitty thing that has ever happened in history, from slavery to imperialism to genocide to environmental degradation, was preordained in the shape and composition of the continents, thereby absolving all the individual and collective actors responsibility of their conscious decisions. 

 

Second, a huge amount of criticism has come from specialists noting the voluminous errors in GG&S on the many different regions and periods it tries to cover. 

 

Third, there are those who say that much of the science and geography in GG&S is  wrong. Just to provide a few examples from James Blaut's critique in Eight Eurocentric Historians, Diamond argues that agriculture was productive in Eurasia because it had a common temperate climate along an east-west axis which allowed diffusion, ignoring the fact that most of Eurasia is desert and inhospitable mountains, that diffusion very commonly took place on a north-south axis (think of corn being domesticated from Canada to Peru, wheat from northern Europe to Ethiopia, rice from northern China through southeast asia), and that when there was incentive, crops could be easily adapted to different environments (think of the potato and sweet potato, both domesticated in tropical climates and spread to cold and seasonally dry areas). He revives the long-debunked argument that China became a despotic empire because of its unified geography, in contrast to Europe, which could not be unified because of its indented coastlines. This ignores the fact that it was Southern Europe with the peninsulas and separate geographic cores. The region responsible for most of the major developments in the last 500 years, including the industrial revolution, was Northern and Western Europe, which is mostly flat, with the Northern European Plain stretching from France to Russia and from France almost to the Spanish border. The boundaries of most of the nation-states that formed in this region do not reflect topographic barriers. His assertion of Chinese stagnancy in the early modern period is also decades outdated and discredited. 

 

 The popularity of GG&S highlights the tension between the hard and social sciences, as well as the pretensions of the populizers of the former. Why is it that despite all of the inaccuracies pointed out by various specialists this book is still so highly regarded by the general educated public and by those in the sciences? I think it is because the book purports to be "scientific," in contrasts to the works of those woolly headed specialists in the social sciences. Therefore, the information in the book occupies a higher plane of knowledge than that produced by the specialists. As Blaut put it, Diamond's argument is "scientistic"  in that he "claims to produce reliable, scientific answers to [historical] problems when in fact he does not have such answers, and because he discards wholesale the findings of social science while inserting old and discredited theories of environmental determinism."

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Where Takeruk mentioned the rivalry within the 'hard sciences' it also exists within a stratified social science field. For instance, in psychology.The "science/researchers" tend to sneer at psychology areas such as psychoanalysis. The cognitive and neuropsychologists who want to place brains in machines and find distinctive patterns. However, on the practice side, there's a lot of argument against forcing scientific empiricism onto the actual practice and implementation of treatment. So, even inside every science discipline you get a "better than you; more science than you" feel. 

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Most historians (myself included) absolutely hate GG&S, and the critique is a bit more nuanced than you've given.

 

Add geographers to that as well. His being given an award by the AAG caused quite a bit of consternation.

 

 

Toward the discussion more generally, as I work in climate change I tend to cross disciplinary lines fairly often. My experience has been that it really depends on the context. I (human geographer) am currently working on a paper with an anthropologist, field biologist, biogeochemist, and freshwater ecologist and it's been going well. There is a mutual respect for everyone's insight and we work together productively. Our paper rests on our interdisciplinarity and we draw on it to talk about the problem in multiple ways and to suggest that a lack of interdisciplinary insight across physical, natural and social sciences feeds back and perpetuates the problem we are looking at. We also have a big push in our university from natural scientists to hire more social scientists. We just finished a job search in our department and a letter was circulated around the university to allow us to hire two of the candidates.

 

On the other hand, there was a meeting last week about the social impacts of sea level rise adaptation here in Miami with no social scientists on hand. An anthropologist from our department went to the meeting and offered to help and she was largely brushed off when she suggested that you can't simply map people at risk of inundation and say problem solved, that vulnerability is primarily social, political, and economic (a well-accepted idea for about 40 years now.) Likewise, I was in a meeting a couple of weeks ago where I expressed my concerns that the language of climate change adaptation in terms of market solutions (alternative energy vehicles, solar panels, etc.) in developed countries obscures the fact that many underdeveloped countries are already experiencing problems related to climate change already, especially flooding and coastal inundation. The response from most of the physical and natural scientists present was that this didn't matter because those countries weren't producing as much CO2 and therefore didn't need to worry right now. They just needed to continue to catch up developed countries and adopt technologies more readily so they could skip development intervals. When I mentioned that Rostow was hardly appropriate for this conversation I was quickly silenced. I was the only social scientist who was able to speak. The others (notably mostly women and about half people of color) were interrupted before they could ever get their thoughts out. In these cases the social sciences were definitely not looked highly upon.

 

In the end, like most things, it depends on the context.

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Last year I was in an interdisciplinary "Biobehavioral Criminology" course, which had criminology, psychology and biology students. Most of the course was pretty strictly about biological explanations for the causes of crime and it was always interesting to hear the biology students give differing accounts than the crim. students. Some of the best courses I've been a part of so far were interdisciplinary and I at least would be more than happy to see that become more popular. 

 

That's awesome, and I've noticed this even within some natural science classes that include people from different fields (geology/biology, chemistry/biology/engineering, etc.).

 

 

 

Third, much of the science and geography in GG&S is just wrong. Just to provide a few examples, he argues that agriculture was  productive in Eurasia because it had a common temperate climate along an east-west axis which allowed diffusion, ignoring the fact that most of Eurasia is desert and inhospitable mountains, that diffusion very commonly took place on a north-south axis (think of corn being domesticated from Canada to Peru, wheat from northern Europe to Ethiopia, rice from northern China through southeast asia), and that when there was incentive, crops could be easily adapted to different environments (think of the potato and sweet potato, both domesticated in tropical climates and spread to cold and seasonally dry areas). He revives the long-debunked argument that China became a despotic empire because of its unified geography, in contrast to Europe, which could not be unified because of its indented coastlines. This ignores the fact that it was Southern Europe with the peninsulas and separate geographic cores. The region responsible for most of the major developments in the last 500 years, including the industrial revolution, was Northern and Western Europe, which is mostly flat, with the Northern European Plain stretching from France to Russia and from France almost to the Spanish border. The boundaries of most of the nation-states that formed in this region do not reflect topographic barriers. His assertion of Chinese stagnancy in the early modern period is also decades outdated and discredited. 

 

Fair point, although Diamond did acknowledge the north-south spread of crops like corn; he just claimed that it took longer (admittedly, I'm unsure how accurate that is). And with regard to potatoes, the potato is an extremely adaptive plant, growing both in tropical lowland forests and high in the Andes.

 

As far as the geographic determinism argument goes, you're right that having the guns, germs, and steel does not mean that one must use them to conquer the world and enslave/genocide everyone else. I think Diamond's argument was more along the lines of "this is why Europeans had the ability to do it" instead of "this is why the Europeans did it". At least, that's how I interpreted things. To say that cows and wheat made a bunch of white dudes sail the seven seas and commit horrific atrocities in every other part of the world is ridiculous, I agree.

 

But I digress. I've looked elsewhere and seen the firestorms GG&S has created, and have no more desire to jump in.

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To say that cows and wheat made a bunch of white dudes sail the seven seas and commit horrific atrocities in every other part of the world is ridiculous, I agree.

 

This one line, by itself, makes me want to read the book.

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My dad and I were talking about this the other day.  He guest speaks for both a religion professor and a biology professor in their classes and has had numerous discussions with both of them.  He is business, who publishes on both the philosophy of science, and ethics.

 He was saying, that for the most part, hard sciences want clear cut answers.  Specific, measurable, verifiable answers.  They are very good with the technical aspects of research, but everything needs to be boxed up in a pretty package.
OTOH, "soft" science asks a lot of questions, such as about the philosophy of science, but doesn't really come to many conclusions.  There is no such thing as the box, in their mind, and no hard and fast conclusions.

We really need both sides to be well rounded, but people just gravitate more strongly to one side or the other.  Working together is great, and is what a university is for.  However, someone who wants hard answers will be driven crazy by the "wishy-washy-ness" of the soft sciences, and the soft sciences will always be annoyed by how definite and sure the hard sciences seem, when there may be other reasons for what they are seeing.

On the university, there is always a hierarchy and everyone knows it.  The hard sciences always think they are better than the soft sciences, ect...  But no one knows where to put the business school because we seem "soft" but business school faculty make more money than the hard and soft combined.  We just think we are awesome and let the others fight it out themselves, knowing full well that we rule the world, mwahaha!

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I find a lot of the problems (like many socio-cultural differences) stem from ignorance. Most natural science people don't have really any iota of substantive knowledge about social sciences and therefore base a lot of their opinions on things they have no clue about, and vice versa for social science people. I think the inferiority complex is pretty real in the social sciences. On the other hand, I love when natural science people think they are far superior to social scientists; it would be a blast to see one of them come into graduate seminars in social sciences and see them hack it - they won't. 

 

Anyone who doesn't see the value of both social sciences and natural sciences is not worth my time. Anyone who actually believes that disciplines like economics, political science, geography, and sociology are not vitally important to understanding the world around us has their head up their ass. Yes, the disciplines have constraints because of the variable of human behaviour. And yes, social scientists try to use the scientific method but it's not even close to being able undercover truths and make conclusions as the natural sciences are. But at the end of the day every discipline is trying to do the same thing: answer questions about things and create new knowledge. 

 

For me personally, I was insanely interested in chemistry when I was younger. But I realized fairly early that chemistry research isn't going to get me to get up in the morning the way that political science does. I don't want to spend much of my time in a lab and researching very narrow questions. I enjoy to get out in the world and contemplate big theories that affect civilization on a day-to-day basis. I have a deep respect for anyone who does good research in any discipline, I couldn't really care less about petty debates on who has the most scientific chops. 

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Maybe this is just my mathematician bias showing, but I think experimental "hard" scientists overstate their results as much as so-called "soft" scientists. People like to talk about proving things all the time, but I feel that in the 'real world' there can't be complete certainty in any result based on observation/data. Certainly theories can be disproven, but we only collect evidence that supports an idea, without knowing if it is the whole story. So it seems funny to me when "hard" scientists slag on "soft" sciences for this. Really, I think all disciplines are guilty of tooting their own horn too much, trying to justify getting more funding, recognition, etc..

 

Certainly mathematicians or logicians or others working in nicely defined, axiomatic approaches definitively prove results all the time. But this is not an experimental science, and often these results don't really mean much for the real world.

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Science, for many people, has hinged on the assumption that if something is replicable, on any coordinate system, then it is "truth" or what have you. I think truth is the wrong word, but I'm failing to think of another word that is better.

 

The more philosophical scientists search for laws (models) that can approximate observations.  I think that is really what the essence of science is. Its the ability to isolate/replicate controlling variables on an observable phenomena.  Be that mathematical, or qualitative. If there is no attempt to define an underlying "philosophy" of your subject matter, it probably isn't a science. 

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As an undergrad, I never really encountered any attitudes of rivalry between soft and hard sciences. Maybe it's because it was a small school, maybe everyone was just enlightened. I don't know. I certainly felt at times that my major (environmental biology) was superior to say elementary education or even math education. However, this wasn't because I viewed the education field as less important. It was more like I was aware of the requirements for many of the education programs and they seemed very... easy. Even the math education students really only needed the equivalent of a minor in math, which did not require a lot of upper-level courses and for the most part, their math education ended with Calculus II. I guess I just feel like someone teaching math should know more.

 

I did, however, see some of the rivalry within the hard sciences. Our school was small, so we had a natural sciences department that encompassed several biology tracks (general, forensic, environmental, wildlife, etc), geology, environmental resource management, public health, physical therapy, and pre-med. I might be forgetting something. There was definitely a great divide between the different types of majors. The medical-oriented majors thought they were better than the environmental/wildlife majors and geology majors. Just about everyone in biology thought they had a harder curriculum than geology majors, and geology and ERM (which was interdisciplinary) majors thought everyone else couldn't do math.

 

As a graduate student, I definitely have seen a little bit of the hard vs soft sciences thing going on. A girl in my program is into neuroscience and occasionally tutors psychology majors. So now and then she goes on about how psychology majors don't know anything. Same thing with the speech-pathology masters students. They have their own special A&P course, so this girl will go on and on about how it's only science course they ever have to take, which isn't really true, since they probably took several courses as undergrads.

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For me personally, I was insanely interested in chemistry when I was younger. But I realized fairly early that chemistry research isn't going to get me to get up in the morning the way that political science does. I don't want to spend much of my time in a lab and researching very narrow questions. I enjoy to get out in the world and contemplate big theories that affect civilization on a day-to-day basis. I have a deep respect for anyone who does good research in any discipline, I couldn't really care less about petty debates on who has the most scientific chops. 

 

This is what fascinates me about one of the philosophy faculty members I met; they double majored in [presumably bio] Chemistry and Philosophy, subsequently getting graduate degrees in philosophy with many science courses. They now work on biomedical ethics and I'm just amazed. I feel like that has got to be the better way to analyze a problem, with a background in more than 1 discipline allowing you to see both halves of a problem.

Edited by Sword_Saint
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Hard Scientist:  It was exactly because of science that humans were able to create the hammer and nail (machinery), and thus the world around them.

 

Soft Scientist:  ​It was because of human ingenuity and desire that led to the development of the hammer and nail, and thus the world around them. 

 

 

Alien spacecraft somewhere near the Moon, eavesdropping:  Forget about them, they're existence is doomed by their own ignorance. 

 

 

*While I have yet to attend graduate school, I do have some experiences from undergrad and "the real World" that are worth posting, but at  later point in time as I am out the door...

Edited by Crucial BBQ
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