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I started university life as a physics major and ended it with a degree in psychology. Along the way, I was a tutor and a teaching assistant in physics and a research assistant in psychology. Graduating with honors in psychology also meant I had to run an independent research project. I chose to replicate an important study in a novel population and was lucky enough to be able to recruit one of the original authors as my adviser.
While I ultimately decided I didn’t want to work in either field, the whole experience gave me a–perhaps unhealthy–interest in the fuss over “hard science versus soft science”. I’ve spent an absurd amount of time arguing over whether there’s a real difference between types of science that falls along those lines, including a delightful bit of argument with former science journalist Susan Jacoby, which was unfortunately brief, as it happened in the middle of a workshop I was running on a different topic.
Just this past summer, I sat on and moderated a panel discussion on the topic at CONvergence, with physics, geology, and psychology represented. I was hoping the video would be available by now, but the short version of the panel goes like this: None of us recognize any meaningful distinction in the practice of science between fields that are generally classed as “hard” sciences and those classed as “soft” sciences. None of these fields are more science-y or less than the others, and we’re all kind of tired of saying so.
Yet the idea that only some of these fields are “real” science, and particularly the idea that social sciences are somehow not scientific, persists.
That’s right. Psychology isn’t science.
Why can we definitively say that? Because psychology often does not meet the five basic requirements for a field to be considered scientifically rigorous: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and, finally, predictability and testability.
There’s some irony that the author of those words trained as a biologist, but we’ll get to that later. For now, I’ll just note that biology is generally lumped with physics and chemistry as a “hard” science, with psychology and sociology on the “soft” side and anthropology stuck in limbo because most people aren’t quite sure what it is.
I’ll also note that this definition of science is facile and, well, wrong. It misses quite a bit about how both “hard” and “soft” sciences have been and are practiced, as well as the factors that determine which disciplines are allowed to fall under the heading of “science”.
Old Science Vs. New Science
I’ll talk mostly about psychology here, because I have a stronger background in its history and issues, but the history of psychology as a scientific discipline is only slightly more brief than that of sociology and anthropology. All three were born out of Enlightenment philosophy, as scholars decided their ideas about humanity should be tested against reality. Psychology is the youngest of these sciences, with a history of rigor dating back only about a century and a half.
A century and a half into the Scientific Revolution, we were arguing about the notation to use for this newfangled calculus stuff, making educated guesses about the nature of light, and coming to grips with gravity and magnetism on a very terrestrial scale. There was very little consensus and several competing frameworks to explain experimental results that had been largely driven by, “What happens if we do this?”
And Isaac Newton was studying alchemy.
This is what science looks like when it’s young. It looks like building tools and making sure they measure what you think they do and figuring out what to call the things they accidentally measured and cranking away at the math on the side until it (probably) does what you need it to do. It’s saying, “Well, that’s weird. Will it do it again?”, then figuring out what it means if it does or if it doesn’t or if it only does sometimes. It’s poking at the world because the damned thing is big, and it might do something interesting. It’s wondering whether your disagreement with another scientists is over differing observations of one thing or of two closely related things you’re calling by the same name. It’s theorizing in the absence of an overarching framework at the same time you’re trying to figure out how all the pieces fit together to make one.
It’s messy. It has to be. So much is unknown, including the scope of the problem. If our tools and methods were fully adequate to the tasks we’d set ourselves, we’d already know what we’re trying to find out. If we had names for everything, we’d have already discovered it. If the patterns that create predictability were obvious from one piece of knowledge, we wouldn’t have a scientific enterprise at all.
It’s only when we know enough to be able to reasonably intuit the size of the gaps in our knowledge, when we go from unknown unknowns to known unknowns, that everything starts to settle down into the patterns we teach to children as the scientific method. Even then, though, it’s a simplified and inadequate representation of what scientists do.
That psychology today looks chaotic is a mark of its newness as a discipline. It doesn’t tell us that psychology has no discipline.
The Complicated Equations
Even in more settled, venerable, “hard” scientific fields, we still run into areas that test what we mean when we’re talking about science. Take, for example, theoretical physics:
But in the opening talk at the workshop, David Gross, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, drew a distinction between the two theories. He classified string theory as testable “in principle” and thus perfectly scientific, because the strings are potentially detectable.
Much more troubling, he says, are concepts such as the multiverse because the other universes that it postulates probably cannot be observed from our own, even in principle. “Just to argue that [string theory] is not science because it’s not testable at the moment is absurd,” says Gross, who shared a Nobel prize in 2004 for his work on the strong nuclear force, which is well tested in experiments, and has also made important contributions to string theory.
What do we do when our theories outstrip our abilities to make predictions from them, much less to test them? If the answer is physics, we hold a conference. If the answer were psychology, we’d probably be talking about defunding departments.
The same problem can happen when the predictions produced by our models become probabilistic rather than deterministic, or a least when the predictions from our “soft” sciences do. In reality, many of our “hard” science models also make probabilistic predictions. Take climatology, for instance.
Climatology combines physics, particularly dynamics, and physical chemistry to study and predict the behavior of global and local climates. The prediction portion of this work is hugely difficult, as we don’t have the mathematics to practically solve equations with that many variables, even if we could measure them all directly. (We can’t, just for the record.)
Instead, we use models, simplifications of the complex systems whose future behavior we want to know. Then we provide the models with our best, highly educated guesses about the variables that drive the behavior we’re interested in. Or we create bracketing scenarios that give us the range of climate behavior we’re most likely to experience or that it’s possible for us experience, and we draw on records of past variables to assign the likelihood of each scenario.
Does it sound like there’s a lot of uncertainty here? That’s because there is. In this discipline rooted in hundreds of years of scientific study, specific predictions about complex systems are still very, very hard. We still call this “hard” science.
Hopefully, this helps put complaints that psychology doesn’t make predictions in perspective. We’ve identified and continue to identify the variables that have an effect on the complex system that is human behavior. We’re figuring out how they interact with each other. We’re in the very earliest stages of building our models that will produce the kind of probabilistic predictions of individual or group behavior.
That we’re not there yet isn’t an argument that psychology isn’t a science. It’s a measure of the complexity of the task.
The Familiarity Factor
Given that finding differences between “hard” and “soft” sciences largely relies on comparing long-established, simpler fields to newer, more complex ones, how has the idea that these sciences are fundamentally different? Well, first of all, most of the people arguing for the distinction simply aren’t taking the long view. They’re looking only at the current situation because it’s easy.
There’s also the fact that few people are trained across disciplines in any depth. I’m certainly not, and I have more crossover experience than most people. It’s easier to cherry pick your scientific results when other people don’t know all of what you’re choosing from.
Still, there’s another factor that matters, and that’s “common sense” familiarity with the material in question.
I think it was a physics professor who introduced me to the problem. He told me that it’s simpler to teach physics than it is to teach many topics, because students came to his classes with very few preconceptions they had to unlearn. Once he convinced them that circular motion didn’t work the way their brains expected it to and that measuring the effects of gravity produced unexpected results, students showed up to class ready to learn.
By contrast, everyone thinks they know how to speak and write English. They’ve been doing it all their lives. Everyone thinks they understand psychology, because people are such an important part of their lives. Everyone knows how society works, because they’ve been living in it.
When it comes to topics we deal with every day without studying them formally, we tend to think we know more than we do. We overestimate our own expertise. More than that, we downgrade the expertise of people who have studied the topic when they disagree with our lay knowledge and theories. We’d rather believe our grandparents who spoke in folksy aphorisms.
We don’t like the idea that there exist people who are more expert in us than we are. It’s easier to accept the idea that their whole field of study is invalid.
How Gender Matters
I mentioned at the start of this post that I’d come back to biology. We talked about this a bit on the panel at CONvergence this summer, because biology as a field is currently in a fascinating state of flux.
As long as I’ve known the “hard”/”soft” science debate to exist, biology has been classed as a “hard” science. It’s held that post despite being roughly the same age/maturity level as the social sciences. It was saved, as far as I can tell, by being a physical science rather than a social science. No, that doesn’t match the distinctions people try to make between “hard” and “soft” sciences. No, it didn’t matter.
Recently, however, biology has come under more scrutiny. Medical science in particular, has been in the news over the last half dozen years for replication problems, for promising treatments that don’t deliver, for the publication of nutrition and epidemiological studies that contradict each other. For a science that has been held up as “hard”, biology and medical science have taken a lot of knocks lately.
By the way, all this criticism has followed hard on the heels of rapid gains in the percentage of life sciences doctorate degrees granted to women (pdf). Also as a point of interest, the social sciences have long seen a relatively high percentage of their doctorates go to women. Race plays a factor there as well.
Does that mean people are calling these fields “soft” just because they have a lot of women in them? Not necessarily. However, in a world where men can’t even handle using the same lip balm as women, it’s not unreasonable to hear “not really scientific” as “ew, girly science” when one of the major differences between the two is percentage of women. That’s particularly true as we watch a scientific field get the downgrade to pink collar.
So let’s drop this “hard”/”soft” distinction between scientific fields, particularly as a gatekeeping mechanism to define what is and isn’t science. It doesn’t work on either a historical or practical basis, and we’ve got good reasons to mistrust even the impulses that lead us there.
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