The Really Hard Science

Social scientists sometimes take flak from physical scientists for not doing “real science.” If you’re a social scientist and you’ve experienced this, you may appreciate the following excerpt from “The Really Hard Science” by Michael Shermer (Scientific American, September 16, 2007):

Over the past three decades I have noted two disturbing tendencies in both science and society: first, to rank the sciences from “hard” (physical sciences) to “medium” (biological sciences) to “soft” (social sciences); second, to divide science writing into two forms, technical and popular. And, as such rankings and divisions are wont to do, they include an assessment of worth, with the hard sciences and technical writing respected the most, and the soft sciences and popular writing esteemed the least. Both these prejudices are so far off the mark that they are not even wrong.

I have always thought that if there must be a rank order (which there mustn’t), the current one is precisely reversed. The physical sciences are hard, in the sense that calculating differential equations is difficult, for example. The variables within the causal net of the subject matter, however, are comparatively simple to constrain and test when contrasted with, say, computing the actions of organisms in an ecosystem or predicting the consequences of global climate change. Even the difficulty of constructing comprehensive models in the biological sciences pales in comparison to that of modeling the workings of human brains and societies. By these measures, the social sciences are the hard disciplines, because the subject matter is orders of magnitude more complex and multifaceted.

The remainder of Shermer’s essay discusses the relationship between theory, observation, data, and communication. Definitely worth reading, if you’re interested.

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One thought on “The Really Hard Science

  1. Pingback: NSF concludes “science hard” « Victor Barger

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