Hard Science versus Soft Science

Those practising the ‘hard’ sciences of physics, geology, chemistry, astronomy et.al. know (or believe) they are being rigorous, rational, thorough and patient in their pursuit of the truth. A goal coming only now and then to scientists – it is hard won, but practitioners are not deterred. They know science calls for such dedication; they are proud of themselves. By and large the public holds a similar picture of scientists, and it respects them. They are the experts after all. Only they represent Science and its dedicated search for knowledge.

On the other hand, those engaged in human and social studies, such as history, anthropology, psychology, literature, philosophy are seen and labelled differently. Essentially this separation is based on the view that they are not sciences, as we know the word. Practitioners do not appear rigorous, testing, patient, objective researchers of the truth. Rather they are seen as amateurs, speculative, imaginative. To be enjoyed – surely at times; to be taken seriously as purveyors of knowledge and truth – infrequently. At best they are artists. Charitably they may be deemed to represent the ‘soft sciences’.

An alternative vision is possible. ‘Scientists’ by their own admission follow strict procedures. This may be their strength – it provides a clear guide-line for newer scientists, to begin with. Because of this it can also be a weakness. A formula, a standard, a rule restricts, inhibits, controls – all features limiting new, unconsidered possibilities. Imagination, speculation, sudden inspiration is absent, disallowed. It is research under restraint.

Now and then hard science defenders insist that their craft calls for imagination as much as any artist, – but you can’t have it both ways: its formula is the scientific principle; its (occasional) imaginative behaviour is not.

This unproblematic process seems straight-forward from the beginning to its end. Success and failure are also straight-forward. You have solved the problem – allowing you to now proceed to another problem – or you have failed.

But consider the humanities: provided one does not try to ape the stereotype of the hard scientist, you are wracked with problems all the time. Beginning with language itself with all its ambiguities, allusions, hidden implications. None of which can be solved or resolved before you proceed. They haunt you.

These studies are, in one way or other, all about the human condition; whether the subject matter is history and its wars, cities and their rise and fall, the quest for political power, women’s repression, and economic cycles. Human beings are always, no matter how implicitly, the subject matter. They change yet remain the same; they are knowable yet remain a mystery. In all, they are full of contradictions, denials, deceptions – to others and especially to themselves.

How on earth do we ‘know’ them? Can we ever ‘know the truth’ of love, hate, fear, joy? Surely these studies are the ‘hard sciences’. And there will never be the ‘last word’ on any element of the work. In comparison the exciting subjects of physics, astronomy and hydraulics pale into ‘softness’.