Which sciences are soft sciences?

In a discussion yesterday, I casually mentioned that I thought Psychology was a soft science. I was unaware that the person to whom I was talking was a drug counselor, and he seemed to take offense. So I spent a few minutes afterward googling for a definition of “soft science”. My results were less than spectacular. I found both the esoteric http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol5/iss2/art13/ and the nebulous http://bill.silvert.org/notions/ecology/hardsoft.htm .

Other definitions offered were
``Soft science’’ means that experimental results cannot be reproduced.


presumed to be understandable, devoid of mathematical rigor, and concerned with everyday concepts such as interpersonal relationships.

So my topic of debate is 2 part. Is there a clear definition of “soft science”? and What sciences fall within the classification?

For my purposes, I’ve always assumed a soft science to be one that relates to the subjective; while a hard science is one that is purely objective. A medical doctor practices a soft science because so much of the result is dependent upon the patient’s own perspective. Biochemistry, OTOH, is one of the hard sciences on which the medical doctor relies.

I think that “soft science” is not a very useful label for categorizing activities. Perhaps a more appropriate distinction might be simply that between what is science, and what is not.

Science, as is generally accepted, refers to the practice of answering questions by posing a hypothesis, and then attempting to disprove the hypothesis through experimentation.

Psychology is a science in this regard in that it is the study of behaviour, the various axioms, theories and generally accepted knowledge in the field being the result of scientific process.

By contrast, your example of medicine, by this definition, would not be considered a science at all. Medicine is simply a vocation which is based on the axioms, theories and generally accepted knowledge produced by the scientific process in the various disciplines of medical research.

Purists would argue that there is no science except physics, as within the study of physics lies the most fundamental explanations for principles examined in the other sciences - essentially, physics at higher levels of abstraction for varying purposes.

One charcterisitic that make a science “soft” (usually used from the outside with a negative undertone) is that it deals with objects that are (still?) too complex to descibe them according to the standards of “hard” sciences. When talking about things like the human mind, society, language, politics, history, philosophy, economics only rarely you are able to make predictions with a precision expected in “hard” sciences. This makes it hard - if not impossible - to decide the validity of theories and lets the whole affair appear very subjective.

Once I skimmed (never did completely read) Asimov’s New Guid to Science (New York: Basic Books, 1984), and I noted that it covered all the “natural” sciences – mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy – but completely ignored the social sciences. No mention at all of sociology, anthropology, political science, or economics. The section on biology touched briefly on psychology, but only Skinnerian behavioralism; no mention of Freud, Jung, Adler, Piaget, or any of them. What’s more, so far as I could determine, none of Asimov’s many, many other popular-science books touched on the social sciences either.

I wrote Dr. Asimov and asked why. He replied, very briefly, that he did not write about the social sciences because he did not know much about them. I found this unsatisfying. How could Dr. Isaac Asimov not know about something? I’ve always wondered whether he had some kind of prejudice against the social sciences and the more theoretical schools of psychology, as not being “real” sciences.

What does the American Association for the Advancement of Science think about the social sciences and psychology? Does anybody know? (I checked out the AAAS website, http://www.aaas.org/, but I can’t find any page on it that makes clear what AAAS does and does not consider a “science”.)

psychology, sociology and economics are definitely soft.

economists don’t have to do physics correctly.

add cars to GNP when purchased but don’t subtract when they get crushed and melted down.

Dal Timgar

From besotted memories of dormitory days, I came up with the following theory:

Soft sciences are the ones with the most girls studying them. The harder the science, the fewer the girls.

I did say that they were besotted dormitory days.

Oh, and the explanation for why they were soft sciences is because girls are soft.

Did I mention that this theory was one from dormitory days–besotted ones at that?

Way back when…when I was a young buck studying in college I to asked what was the difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences.

The answer I received (from hard science folk) was that sciences that used a large amount of mathematics was hard and sciences that didn’t were soft. I asked if Biology was a soft science and the answer was a definate yes.

I’m sure the answer from soft science folk would have been different.

It is a bad labeling system in that the word ‘soft’ sounds inferior to ‘hard’.

Maybe the ‘mathematical’ sciences or something like that…I don’t know.

My understanding (or, opinion rather) would be that hard science is when the practitioners work by setting up a hypothesis, coming up with a way to test that hypothesis, and then submitting an account of his methodology and findings to a group of peers to be approved as having a high probability (or not) of accuracy.

Soft sciences seem to work primarily on the basis of referencing other works, and supplying a good argument thereof for why you believe what you are stating. The other works being referred to could be anything from actual hard scientific studies to something once said by someone who is highly esteemed and thus must be correct.

As such, even the study of literature could be considered a soft science.

Some sciences are essentially pure hard science (physics) while others are strictly soft science (literary studies.) Others like psychology or history are somewhere in that middle ground.
In pyschology, there are some practitioners who are more concerned with bio-psychological studies (chemical imbalances, what happens if you slice off a bit of the brain over on this side, etc.) and this is essentially a hard science as you can come up with and execute true laboratory testing. The Freudian side of psychology however is mostly soft science. It largely consists of (at base) respectable individuals doing “interviews” with people and logging their impressions of what information was revealed in the interview. Depending on their respectability this will lower or raise the value of these impressions and others will thereby become more or less likely to reference them when explaining why they had the impressions they did when holding their interviews. Quite soft.

My understanding of the division is that the “hard” sciences consist of math and the physical sciences. The “soft” sciences are everything else. The harder things are to quantify, the softer a science it is.

Back in August 1987, Jared Diamond (who later wrote the classic Guns, Germs, and Steel) wrote a marvelous essay in Discover entitled, “Soft Sciences Are Often Harder Than Hard Sciences.” If you ever come across it, read it. Through a series of examples, he showed the methods that serious scientists use to practice different sciences rigorously, moving from indisputably ‘hard’ sciences to the softest of ‘soft’ sciences. That article convinced me that practitioners of ‘soft’ sciences were indeed practicing science.

I have to agree with RTFirefly and Blinking Duck: hard sciences are those which are heavily mathematical in nature. The goal of hard sciences is finding quantitative explanations for various phenomena. Softer sciences often seem to be investigating things which pretty much defy quantitative explanations.

Note that in my opinion, the need for quantitative explanation tends to rule out even some of the natural sciences as being hard sciences (which is not to say that they are trivial, uninteresting, or unimportant, of course). For example, I’d agree with Blinking Duck’s nameless friend’s assessment that Biology is, as a whole, a soft science.

The social sciences tend to have a major envy-of-physics thing going, and there is a lot of pressure to structure your studies in as quantifiable and “hard” a fashion as possible as if that made it more “rigorous” even if it means that you learn less and can say less about what you’re trying to study.

I mean, you don’t learn a whole hell of a lot about how chimpanzees behave by throwing five chimps in a blender and dumping the chimp sludge-soup into a centrifuge and whirling it around until you get a precipitate, even if you do have a control group of chimps and a designated independent variable.

It’s like the old drunken bar yarn about the police officer who finds the old sot clambering around on all fours out by the lamppost: cop asks him what he’s doing and the drunk says he’s lost his house keys and as soon as he finds them he can go home. Cop takes out his flashlight and helps him look for a little while, then asks, “Are you pretty sure this is where you lost your keys?” Drunk says, “No, offisher, I think I dropped them back in that alley when I was taking a piss, but it’s easier to look for them out here where the light is”

Many social science folks spend lots of time studying what they can study using quantifiable empirical methodologies after having been discouraged from studying what they really wanted to study when they first came into the field solely because those topics did not easily lend themselves to a research proposal modeled after the hard sciences.

They’d do better to proudly proclaim themselves the “social arts” and acknowledge that the purpose of the inquiry and research is partly to stimulate the reader to reconsider their own experience and impression of social life, and also partly to allow the social artist the opportunity to use research techniques to flesh out and illustrate the polemical points they want to make to an audience.

I never cared for the term “soft science” because it implied a judgement that the field is willfully imprecise, and that people who studied them were posers trying to hang with the genuinely smart and scientifically rigorous crowd. A science is determined by its methods of factfinding, not its subject matter.

If fields of study must to be categorized into "hard’ and “soft” groups, then I agree with kellner’s thoughts, and would throw in biology and medicine as well. Anything that studies living creatures or the creations of living creatures is going to encounter too many variations and exceptions to be completely or permanently accurate. This doesn’t make it a flawed science, but just one with incomparable challenges.

Interesting question.

As an undergrad in meteorology, we debated this question all the time. Certainly the subject required a significant understanding of physics and some chemistry, and the serious researchers in the subject were undoubtably brilliant scientists, but the best forecasters, who are the front line soldiers in the field, relied heavily on instinct, memory, and intuition to best the “pure science” guys.

I think this is similar to fields like biology, medicine, and psychology, where observation and empathy, for lack of a better word, play a large part in the skill of the practitioner.

My theory was that the hard sciences dealt with artificial, “ideal” cases (PV=nRT, how many times did I use that?), while those that dealt with the “real world” were too complex for the hard sciences to deal with. Too many variables.

I always thought that architecture was the ultimate soft science.


I can’t believe I wrote that. It is one of my pet peeves of grammar!

XQuze ay mwah.

I’m not sure architecture would be a science. It seems more of an art or trade. I always thought hard science could be proved or disproved for example the speed of light. Soft sciences such as psychology and sociology can not be proved or disproved and the theories in them are in constant flux. For example almost no one today agrees with Freuds theories, yet we still use geometry that was invented by the greeks.

My take? “Soft” and “hard” refers to the precision of data one can acquire from experiments and observations. The more precise this data is, the harder the science is. Precison means, if you set up the experiment the same way, and perform the same procedures, you will see the same results. Therefore, physics and chemistry are the hardest of the sciences, while psychology and sociology are very, very soft.

Well, there’s your soft sciences, and then there’s your soft, squishy sciences.

Re:psychology, some links:

How psychology put itself to the test.

Defying Psychiatric Wisdom, These Skeptics Say ‘Prove It’

Rather than too many variables, presence of enough unknown variables,