Hard Science and 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 truth. A goal reached 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; it respects them (ill-tempers over the proof of global warning notwithstanding). They are the experts after all. Only they represent Science and its dedicated search for knowledge. It is interesting to think that the word ‘scientist’ automatically carries with it the word ‘expert’. We do not conceive of a scientist being an inexpert or amateur.

On the other hand, those engaged in human and social studies, such as history, anthropology, psychology, literature, philosophy are seen and labelled differently. This separation is based on the view that they are not sciences, as we know the word. Nor do practitioners ‘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. They may be deemed to represent the ‘soft sciences’ – an ambivalence – both pejorative and charitable a judgment surely.

But an alternative vision is possible. ‘Scientists’ by their own admission follow strict procedures. This may be their strength – it provides a clear guideline for young scientists, to begin with. It can also be their weakness. A formula, a standard, a rule which restricts, inhibits, controls – all features limiting new, yet to be considered possibilities. Imagination, speculation, sudden inspiration are absent, disallowed. Research under restraint. It is only the exceptional scientist (usually renowned and retired) who concedes that speculation and imagination play an important role in the best scientific research.

But science can’t have it both ways: its formula is the ‘scientific method’; its (occasional) imaginative behaviour is not. Is it an aberration, which sometimes pays off?

Consider the humanities scholar: provided one does not try to ape the stereotype of the hard scientist, she is wracked with problems all the time. Beginning with language itself, with all its ambiguities, allusions, and hidden implications. None of which can be solved or resolved before you proceed; and they haunt you always.

Their studies target, in one way or other, 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. And humans change yet remain the same; they are knowable yet remain a mystery. In all, they are full of contradictions, denials, deceptions – to others and to themselves. How do we make these fitful, capricious beings an object of rigorous study? Let alone an object of ‘scientific’
study’? [The effort to square the circle may be the cause of psychology’s poor repute, and its retreat into a ‘testing’ institution].

How do we ever ‘know’ human beings in all their machinations and manoeuvres ? Can we ever ‘understand the truth’ of love, hate, fear, joy – in all their guises ? Surely these studies are the real ‘hard sciences’. And there can never be the ‘last word’ on any element of the work. In comparison the exciting subjects of physics, astronomy and hydraulics pale into ‘softness’ – there the scientist has her ‘marching orders’, they know what they have to do, and they get on with the job, in a certain pure innocence.

Pity the poor poet or ‘student’ of politics (note we never say the ‘student of the galaxies’); they rely on little helpful directions on how to manage their work. Nothing instructs them; everything obstructs them. They grope and struggle for every insight in their practice of ‘hard science’.

Don Miller
8-3-2012

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Uncertainty

If deniers are not accusing the Reds or Greens of attempting to topple capitalism, or pointing the finger at the U.N. for planning to surreptitiously bring about ‘world government’, they are reminding us that even scientists admit there is some ‘uncertainty’ in their findings that the earth is in fact warming and that human behaviour is significantly responsible for this process. Therefore, they conclude, we must not get sucked into extravagant, needless and dangerous schemes to reduce such ‘warming’.

The first two accusations are so fanciful we should treat them with ridicule. The third, the apparently rational attack, is a different matter. In a way it is true – there is uncertainty. In a more rigorous way, it is untrue because the users of this argument don’t appreciate what they are saying when they are wording such an accusation; they do not understand the nature of science. All science exists permanently with uncertainty.

I suspect ninety percent of the world doesn’t realize this because education fails to explain to each generation the nature of natural and social reality, and the notion of knowledge with its inevitable limitations. They also ignore, albeit unwittingly, how all human beings live every moment of their lives with uncertainty, and that every time they make decisions, small or large, they act on gross uncertainty, and even were  people aware of that restriction, they can do nothing about it.

Certain scientists unfortunately do themselves a disservice by misrepresenting what science in practice is. A pity. Scientific practice is not entirely radically different from non-scientific practice.

The sooner we eradicate the dominant influence of two thousand old myths about what reality, life and knowledge are, with all their limitations and imperfections and changeability necessarily entailed, the sooner we can understand and help curb the more foolish and dangerous statements and policies individuals, corporations and governments regularly propose.

As far as I can see, the only certainty is uncertainty. It is structural and pervasive; it is not simply the occasional product of deceit or incompetence. The deniers’ use of the argument has no serious value; it can however mislead many sincere people who are consciously ‘uncertain’ about this critical issue.

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