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 and legitimacy. Roughly speaking, the natural sciences are considered "hard" while the social sciences are usually described as "soft".
Precise definitions vary, 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. 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.
Philosophers and sociologists of science have not been able to confirm the relationship between these characteristics and perceived hardness or softness in empirical studies. Supposedly more "developed" hard sciences do not in fact have a greater degree of consensus or selectivity in accepting new results. 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, while natural sciences such as biology do not always aim to generate testable predictions. There are some measurable differences between hard and soft sciences. For example, hard sciences make more extensive use of graphs, and soft sciences are more prone to a rapid turnover of buzzwords.
Critics of the concept argue that soft sciences are implicitly considered to be less "legitimate" scientific fields, or simply not scientific at all. It has been argued that this partly is because, although they often study less complex phenomena than natural sciences, social science findings are more likely to intersect with everyday experience and are therefore dismissed as "obvious or insignificant". Being labelled a soft science can affect the perceived value of a discipline to society and the amount of funding available to it. 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". During the late 2000s recessions, social science was disproportionately targeted for funding cuts compared to mathematics and natural science, and proposals were made for the United States' National Science Foundation to cease funding disciplines such as political science altogether. Both of these incidents prompted critical discussion of the distinction between hard and soft sciences.
- Exact science
- Demarcation problem
- Hard systems and soft systems
- History of science
- Positivism dispute
- STEM fields
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