Hard and soft science

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Hard science and soft science are colloquial terms used to compare scientific fields on the basis of perceived methodological rigor, exactitude, and objectivity.[1][2][3] Roughly speaking, the natural sciences are considered "hard", whereas the social sciences are usually described as "soft".[3]


Precise definitions vary,[4] but features often cited as characteristic of hard science include: producing testable predictions; performing controlled experiments; relying on quantifiable data and mathematical models; a high degree of accuracy and objectivity; and generally applying a purer form of the scientific method.[2][5][6][7][8] A closely related idea (originating in the nineteenth century with Auguste Comte) is that scientific disciplines can be arranged into a hierarchy of hard to soft on the basis of factors such as rigor, "development" and whether they are "theoretical" or "applied", with physics and chemistry typically at the top, biology in an intermediate position and the social sciences at the bottom.[4][9]

Some philosophers and sociologists of science have questioned the relationship between these characteristics and perceived hardness or softness. The more "developed" hard sciences do not necessarily have a greater degree of consensus or selectivity in accepting new results.[10] Commonly cited methodological differences are also not a reliable indicator. Psychologists use controlled experiments and economists use mathematical modelling, but as social sciences both are usually considered soft sciences,[1][2] while natural sciences such as biology do not always aim to generate testable predictions.[6] There are some measurable differences between hard and soft sciences. For example, hard sciences make more extensive use of graphs,[4][11] and soft sciences are more prone to a rapid turnover of buzzwords.[12]


Critics of the concept argue that soft sciences are implicitly considered to be less "legitimate" scientific fields,[2] or simply not scientific at all.[13] It has been argued that this partly is because, although they often study more complex phenomena than natural sciences, social science findings are more likely to intersect with everyday experience and are therefore dismissed as "obvious or insignificant".[8][14] Being labelled a soft science can affect the perceived value of a discipline to society and the amount of funding available to it.[3] In the 1980s mathematician Serge Lang successfully blocked influential political scientist Samuel P. Huntington's admission to the US National Academy of Sciences, describing Huntington's use of mathematics to quantify the relationship between factors such as "social frustration" (Lang asked Huntington if he possessed a "social-frustration meter") as "pseudoscience".[8][15][16] During the late 2000s recessions, social science was disproportionately targeted for funding cuts compared to mathematics and natural science,[17][18] and proposals were made for the United States' National Science Foundation to cease funding disciplines such as political science altogether.[14][19] Both of these incidents prompted critical discussion of the distinction between hard and soft sciences.[8][14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "In praise of soft science". Nature 435 (7045): 1003–2005. 2005. doi:10.1038/4351003a.  edit
  2. ^ a b c d Wilson, Timothy D. (12 July 2012). "'Soft' sciences don't deserve the snobbery". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 19 December 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c Frost, Pamela. "Soft science and hard news". Columbia University. Metanews. Retrieved 10 August 2009. 
  4. ^ a b c Smith, Laurence D.; Best, Lisa A.; Stubbs, D. Alan; Johnston, John; Bastiani Archibald, Andrea (2000). "Scientific Graphs and the Hierarchy of the Sciences: A Latourian Survey of Inscription Practices". Social Studies of Science 30 (1). JSTOR 285770.  edit
  5. ^ Lemons, John (1996). Scientific Uncertainty and Environmental Problem Solving. Blackwell. p. 99. ISBN 0865424764. 
  6. ^ a b Rose, Steven (1997). "Chapter One". Lifelines: Biology Beyond Determinism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195120356. 
  7. ^ Gutting, Gary (17 May 2012). "How Reliable Are the Social Sciences?". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c d Diamond, Jared (August 1987). "Soft sciences are often harder than hard sciences". Discover. Retrieved 19 December 2012. 
  9. ^ Lodahl, Janice Beyer; Gordon, Gerald (1972). "The Structure of Scientific Fields and the Functioning of University Graduate Departments". American Sociological Review 37 (1). doi:10.2307/2093493.  edit
  10. ^ Cole, Stephen (1983). "The Hierarchy of the Sciences?". American Journal of Sociology 89 (1). doi:10.1086/227835.  edit
  11. ^ Latour, B. (1990). "Drawing things together". In M. Lynch; S. Woolgar. Representation in scientific practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pp. 19–68. 
  12. ^ Bentley, R. A. (2008). Allen, Colin, ed. "Random Drift versus Selection in Academic Vocabulary: An Evolutionary Analysis of Published Keywords". PLoS ONE 3 (8): e3057. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003057. PMC 2518107. PMID 18728786.  edit
  13. ^ Berezow, Alex B. (13 July 2012). "Why psychology isn't science". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 19 December 2012. 
  14. ^ a b c "A different agenda". Nature 487 (7407): 271. 2012. doi:10.1038/487271a.  edit
  15. ^ Johnson, George; Laura Mansnerus (3 May 1987). "Science Academy Rejects Harvard Political Scientist". New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2012. 
  16. ^ Change, Kenneth; Warren Leary (25 September 2005). "Serge Lang, 78, a Gadfly and Mathematical Theorist, Dies". New York Times. Retrieved 19 December 2012. 
  17. ^ Richardson, Hannah (26 October 2010). "Humanities to lose English universities teaching grant". BBC News. Retrieved 19 December 2012. 
  18. ^ Jump, Paul (20 January 2011). "Social science emulates scientific method to escape retrenchment". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 19 December 2012. 
  19. ^ Lane, Charles (4 June 2012). "Congress should cut funding for political science research". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 December 2012.