Saturday, May 17, 2008

Classifying the Sciences

In the last week I've encountered two expressions that bug me. Both have to do with classifying the sciences.

"The hard sciences."
In an e-mail, a philosopher pointed to the necessity of a curricular requirement for courses in "the hard sciences." No one younger than a certain age talks this way. No social scientist talks this way. And I've never heard a natural scientist talk this way, either. From the context, it seemed as though the philosopher was indicating math and physics. These are taken to be the sciences that aren't "soft." But why are those other areas of study called soft? Because they're easier? (They're not.) Because the object of study is less concrete? (But consider fluid dynamics.) Or because they aren't as male dominated? Plenty of people have made a case for the latter.
So the term "hard sciences" is at least disrespectful of the social sciences and possibly also disrespectful of women.
A more accurate division is into the "life" and "physical" sciences. Is that so hard?

"The human sciences."
I've seen this used twice in the philosophy of science book I've been reading. I think it's used to indicate the social sciences but I can't tell if it's also meant to capture some or all of the humanities and some or all of the biological sciences. Certainly, it's used in a context where the social sciences are more problematic than the natural sciences because they supposedly lack objectivity. But I've never heard anyone refer to their own work as being in "the human sciences," and I have no colleagues who identify themselves as "human scientists."
I can't explain why this term is used. I can only think that its purpose is to appear neutral while being subtly disparaging. Or maybe it's an old-fashioned term. I can imagine that some would use it so as to make an implicit reference to the Geisteswissenschaften--but in the philosophy of science I'm reading, that would be beside the point.

The use of terms like these by philosophers points, I think, to the distance between (some) philosophers and their colleagues elsewhere in the academy.


Anonymous said...

I always thought the "hard sciences" were so called because they were more quantitative (which is often equated to being more rigorous). Given the increasing (and now widespread) use of mathematics in biology, though, we should no longer differentiate between the physical and life sciences in that respect.

Evelyn Brister said...

Sure, quantitative...that's a possible reason for the divide between hard and soft sciences, but economics has long been practiced in a way that is quantitative but has still not been considered "hard."

I'm not sure what to make of trying to label some sciences as more rigorous than others. What does "rigorous" mean, other than as a term of approbation?

Good point about some parts of the life sciences being quantitative. Would you go farther, to say that there is some further reason to distinguish between the quantitative life sciences and the more qualitative bits?

I suspect that what I do-which is essentially natural history-would not be considered to be especially quantitative even though results are reported in those terms. But it intersects with projects in, for instance, biogeochemistry, which are more quantitative in nature. I'm not sure that this particular difference between forest ecology and biogeochemistry is a difference that makes a difference.

Clark Goble said...

What is the age when the term "hard sciences" drops off? (Out of curiosity since I and most I know use the term)

I'm also not quite following it as a gender issue.

I also don't quite see how fluid dynamics entails a parallel to the social sciences.

I suspect the reason for the difference is that the hard sciences study entities where choice doesn't play a role whereas the soft sciences study phenomena where choice plays a big roll. Some might for metaphysical reasons commit to a kind of determinism where choice isn't 'real' in the sense of being a problem. But I think even there many would see a practical problem that goes well beyond deterministic chaostic systems such as one finds in fluid dynamics or plasma physics (which is obviously far worse).

Anne said...

"Clark": If choice doesn't play a role in the "hard" sciences, how is what is studied determined? By fate? How does a "hard" scientist know what is significant and worth observing or not, or how an experiment should be conducted?

Anne said...

Evelyn: I the term "hard" sciences is meant to convey that those types of science are more real than "soft," aka "fake," sciences. People who would use such a term include certain of my relatives, engineers and medical professionals who didn't "believe in" psychology. The term expresses clear devaluation of the social sciences.

Evelyn Brister said...

I think you're completely right about this. Clark's interest is in physics, and he's happy to think that what he does is "hard"-and there are a couple of ways to interpret what "hard" might mean! Certainly, "manly" is one meaning, and one that is often barely veiled.

The term "soft" in reference to psychology and other social and biological sciences, even when they're quantitative. But social scientists never use that term to refer to themselves-as you note, it's reserved as a put-down. So--how descriptive, how useful, is a term that is used only to denigrate other people's work, no matter how rigorous, respected, or influential it is?