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Author Topic: Hard and Soft Sciences (Trieste and Sure)  (Read 1451 times)

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Offline SureTopic starter

Hard and Soft Sciences (Trieste and Sure)
« on: July 20, 2010, 08:32:07 PM »
This is the debate of hard versus soft science, which often manifests itself as the degree to which soft science is, in fact, science. Now, my contention is that both soft science and hard science are equally science. This is because science is, in my belief, anything that advances our knowledge of anything in particular. Now, there is one caveat to that, which is that it must allow us to predict and control outcomes of some kind or another.

For example, chemistry is science because it enhances our knowledge of, say, why water evaporates. It can control the outcome of water evaporating by adding salt to change that, and can successfully predict how much salt will lead to how much change.

Psychology, for the soft end, is a science because it enhances our knowledge of why a person feels stress, and can control that outcome by introducing things to make the person more or less stressed, and can predict how various behaviors and conditions will affect the person in relation to stress.

Now, one of the big problems for soft sciences is operationalization, or the development of a way to measure whatever it is in question. It is very easy to measure temperature by comparison to measuring emotions because we have both a tool (the thermometer) and a scale (Celsius/Fahrenheit) which we can use. However, this does not decrease them as sciences, it merely means they are less developed than hard sciences. Before the invention of the thermometer or the Farenheit/Celsius scales, it would have been equally hard to talk about temperature. Similarly, we live in a world where most soft sciences have not been operationalized. There is no Stressometer, nor is there a Stress Scale. This is because we have not found a reliable way to do so, not because such things are nonsense.

Now, tools and scales are purely Human inventions, so this is no more an inherent feature of the discipline than it is an inherent feature of mankind. As a result, it is simply because the field is underdeveloped compared to more hard sciences. It doesn’t help this underdevelopment extends beyond operationalization. Many of the soft sciences are groping around without their equivalent of Newton’s laws or any form of ironclad basic principles (they do have principles, but nothing approaching the absolute reliability Newston's are for physics at the moment). However, physics was not a lesser discipline before Newton came along. It was more incorrect, it was less capable of doing the things that it can do now days that put it in ‘hard’ science, but it was not less of a science. Nor was it that Newton’s laws did not exist before they were discovered (this is the subject of a philosophical debate, but let us presume they did), merely that we were not aware of them and so they could not be used or accounted for.

Presumably, one day, many many moons from now, Annabelle’s Laws of Psychology will be published and Psychology will find a way to operationalize what is necessary to operationalize for their field. At that point it will be much harder to deny soft sciences as sciences, because they will have the tools to be significantly more in line with what are now considered ‘hard’ sciences. They will also become much harder to study and get a degree in most probably, on a semi-related note.

In the mean time, though, they are not lesser sciences, they are merely less developed ones. And they are equally worthwhile.

Offline Trieste

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Re: Hard and Soft Sciences (Trieste and Sure)
« Reply #1 on: July 21, 2010, 12:53:13 PM »
First thing's first: I feel the need to define "soft science", since it's often used interchangeably with "social science", and social science is a much wider umbrella. For my purposes, the soft sciences include psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology (I consider physical anthropology a hard science) and possibly political science, if we happen to range that far. Conversely, the hard sciences are the traditionally empirical ones: chemistry, biology, geology, perhaps physics (although I'll admit, my grasp of physics is tenuous at best, so I don't feel comfortable putting it firmly in one category or another; it deals with forces that are measurable but in largely hypothetical situations and I don't know where that would go, and this is totally not a run-on sentence). So. Okay.

Hard sciences and soft sciences are both worthwhile, most of the time. This I'll happily concede, since I agree. And the so-called soft sciences are not invalid disciplines. They are often useful and interesting. Grabbing a couple classes in both sociology and anthropology was fascinating and while it does not make me an expert, it does make me more aware of the power that society and peers have, and psychology does teach us the power of our own mind. I can, in fact, think of several of my peers who would benefit greatly from taking the time to study human behavior in an effort to better understand social interactions. I'm not sure if it would make them better at it, but at least they would have a better grasp of what's going on and maybe be able to pick up on more social cues. Soft sciences have merit when considered as disciplines. However, they have little merit as sciences.

Ah, psychology. It's caught in the middle between science and pure discipline. We learned a lot from the original Stanford Prison Experiment, and we confirmed a lot of those lessons when the BBC repeated the SPE in 2000. We learned a lot from Milgram. Putting ethics aside for the moment, those were experiments in the human mind that were controlled, that were designed to prove or disprove an hypothesis. Milgram's experiment especially seems to embody the scientific method beautifully. But what did Jung learn from experimentation and not speculation? Psychology could perhaps be used in a more scientific fashion, but it seems like more often it's used in the fashion of a discipline, based on speculation and 'gut feelings'.

Sociology and anthropology (at least on the cultural side, as stated above) overlap in a lot of places, and they have a lot of the same problems when it comes to defining them as a science. The scientific method is very simple: hypothesis, experiment, data, conclusion. It's not just something for 5th-grade science teachers to torment students with. While sociology and anthropology are both very good at forming hypotheses - it is, after all, the easy part - they aren't so good at the rest of the scientific method. Sociology might, as a completely stereotypical example, form the hypothesis that youths in inner cities have a higher dropout rate because of external pressures such as gangs, family, and peers. Specifically (the hypothesis might continue), it's because academics are sorely undervalued in this environment, while the characteristics of a street-smart 'tough guy/gal' are far more valued. Ergo, the higher dropout rate in inner cities* is due to societal pressure and not necessarily due to lack of academic ability. But how does one prove that? By observation? Where is the control? One can certainly deal with statistics, but statistics are raw data, without a lot of context behind them, and the methods of gathering them can sometimes be questionable. (For instance, I have yet to run across a formal survey that didn't seem to be putting words in my mouth, at least a little, in how the questions are formed.)

Science is supposed to be the ordered search for knowledge and answers. It is not about the tools so much as the methods. Science is exacting, and as precise as possible. Scientists have developed many tools to facilitate this, but the tools are not actually the trade. Using your example of the Stress-o-meter, there isn't one and there probably is not one in development because it's not needed. We don't need psychology; we can isolate stress hormones to determine if someone is under stress, and compare it to a baseline in order to determine how stressed they are.

If we really want to get frisky, we could note down physical characteristics of stress and record them against levels of stress hormones. At 10 mg/mL of 'stressitol' (my made up stress hormone), the subject's pupils start contracting. At 20 mg/mL of stressitol, the subject will start visibly sweating and fidgeting will be more pronounced. Etc. Do this enough times across enough people and you start to get a baseline of how humans react to being stressed out. Most chemicals cause physical reactions in the body (such as narcotics causing the pupils to dilate) and this theoretical stressitol would be no different. If we pay attention, we can document the physical signs… and all without psychology or to much guesswork, and without trying to read the person's mind. Since stressitol is an alcohol, by the way, it obviously would be degraded into sugar, explaining the burst of energy during and directly after stress, followed by a sudden crash similar to the one experienced after a 'sugar high'.  This is just one example of the things that can be explained with chemistry alone, without involving anything from a soft science.

I would venture to say that the soft sciences deal more with relatives, while hard sciences deal more with absolutes. The temperature of absolute zero IS 0 Kelvin. The rate of reactions, how much heat they produce, even the amount of energy required to overcome entropy and kick off a reaction - these are all quantifiable, measurable, definitive save for perhaps a little room for instrument or operator error. They are thus because past scientists have worked through the scientific method and placed values as accurately as possible on those things. In contrast, a lot of research has been done for soft sciences, but they deal more with "Is Jan feeling more stressed by this pressure than Jim?" and similar questions. It isn't that they are not valid, but the answers are not pursued in a scientific manner.


* I actually don't know off the top of my head if the drop-out rate in the inner-city is higher than that of the suburbs, and it's irrelevant right now. I just want to make it clear that I'm using that statement as part of my thought experiment, not as a statement of fact.

Offline SureTopic starter

Re: Hard and Soft Sciences (Trieste and Sure)
« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2010, 08:10:58 PM »

Quote
Ah, psychology. It's caught in the middle between science and pure discipline. We learned a lot from the original Stanford Prison Experiment, and we confirmed a lot of those lessons when the BBC repeated the SPE in 2000. We learned a lot from Milgram. Putting ethics aside for the moment, those were experiments in the human mind that were controlled, that were designed to prove or disprove an hypothesis. Milgram's experiment especially seems to embody the scientific method beautifully. But what did Jung learn from experimentation and not speculation? Psychology could perhaps be used in a more scientific fashion, but it seems like more often it's used in the fashion of a discipline, based on speculation and 'gut feelings'.

I would say that soft sciences, at least at their best, are not based on speculation and gut feelings. However, you are hitting upon a problem I acknowledge, which is that there is no definitive currently known. When a physicist is unsure of whether his theorem is correct, he makes a machine to test it, but there is nothing equivalent for most soft sciences. Therefore theories are harder to conclusively prove right. Presumably, future laws and development will find a way to do this, but even if they don’t, that merely makes the soft sciences more difficult to perform, not less of a science.

Quote
Sociology and anthropology (at least on the cultural side, as stated above) overlap in a lot of places, and they have a lot of the same problems when it comes to defining them as a science. The scientific method is very simple: hypothesis, experiment, data, conclusion. It's not just something for 5th-grade science teachers to torment students with. While sociology and anthropology are both very good at forming hypotheses - it is, after all, the easy part - they aren't so good at the rest of the scientific method. Sociology might, as a completely stereotypical example, form the hypothesis that youths in inner cities have a higher dropout rate because of external pressures such as gangs, family, and peers. Specifically (the hypothesis might continue), it's because academics are sorely undervalued in this environment, while the characteristics of a street-smart 'tough guy/gal' are far more valued. Ergo, the higher dropout rate in inner cities is due to societal pressure and not necessarily due to lack of academic ability. But how does one prove that? By observation? Where is the control? One can certainly deal with statistics, but statistics are raw data, without a lot of context behind them, and the methods of gathering them can sometimes be questionable. (For instance, I have yet to run across a formal survey that didn't seem to be putting words in my mouth, at least a little, in how the questions are formed.)

The lack of application of the scientific method is the fault of the discipline, not the actual subject. Regardless, you have touched on one of the problems of soft sciences, which is that they cannot generate things of their own accord. It is impossible for them to set up two schools which are identical in every way with the exception of one factor the way a physicist or chemist could. So, yes, if you say the scientific method is necessary to science, it is not science. That is a very narrow definition of science though. However, the study of Humans like that will inevitably need its own set of rules and methods because of it. The thing is that I can’t actually defend whatever the current methods are because I don’t know them; I’m more familiar with harder sciences.

As to the methods of gathering information being questionable, every method of gathering any kind of information is questionable in some way. Tell me, how much did that thermometer change the temperature of the solution?

Quote
Science is supposed to be the ordered search for knowledge and answers. It is not about the tools so much as the methods. Science is exacting, and as precise as possible. Scientists have developed many tools to facilitate this, but the tools are not actually the trade. Using your example of the Stress-o-meter, there isn't one and there probably is not one in development because it's not needed. We don't need psychology; we can isolate stress hormones to determine if someone is under stress, and compare it to a baseline in order to determine how stressed they are.

If we really want to get frisky, we could note down physical characteristics of stress and record them against levels of stress hormones. At 10 mg/mL of 'stressitol' (my made up stress hormone), the subject's pupils start contracting. At 20 mg/mL of stressitol, the subject will start visibly sweating and fidgeting will be more pronounced. Etc. Do this enough times across enough people and you start to get a baseline of how humans react to being stressed out. Most chemicals cause physical reactions in the body (such as narcotics causing the pupils to dilate) and this theoretical stressitol would be no different. If we pay attention, we can document the physical signs… and all without psychology or to much guesswork, and without trying to read the person's mind. Since stressitol is an alcohol, by the way, it obviously would be degraded into sugar, explaining the burst of energy during and directly after stress, followed by a sudden crash similar to the one experienced after a 'sugar high'.  This is just one example of the things that can be explained with chemistry alone, without involving anything from a soft science.

Tools are not the trade, no, but they are very necessary to it. Without the ability to measure any of the things you mention, then you obviously would not be able to perform an experiment or note down the results. Are you saying a chemist could note down the above reactions without the united of milligrams/milliliters? Without any such unit of measurement? Are you saying that they could do so despite lacking any way to actually measure the level of stress hormones (which undoubtedly requires a tool)? Lacking these things, would chemistry be any more specific, testable, and so on than soft sciences?

And chemistry cannot tell us why people become stressed. It can tell us the actual reactions, but measuring those hormones does not inform us what in the environment causes the stress, which would presumably be psychology’s job.

Quote
I would venture to say that the soft sciences deal more with relatives, while hard sciences deal more with absolutes. The temperature of absolute zero IS 0 Kelvin. The rate of reactions, how much heat they produce, even the amount of energy required to overcome entropy and kick off a reaction - these are all quantifiable, measurable, definitive save for perhaps a little room for instrument or operator error. They are thus because past scientists have worked through the scientific method and placed values as accurately as possible on those things. In contrast, a lot of research has been done for soft sciences, but they deal more with "Is Jan feeling more stressed by this pressure than Jim?" and similar questions. It isn't that they are not valid, but the answers are not pursued in a scientific manner.

I think you’re overemphasizing the ‘absolutes’ of science. Absolute zero is zero Kelvin, yes, but other things are variable. How they vary can be predicted, but they still vary. If you are saying, however, that it develops rules that work in more or less all cases, then that is true and a necessary function, and one I would contend that the soft sciences will eventually come into. For example, though I’m not sure if it’s true, there’s a rather growing contention among several linguists that certain word orders do not exist, for whatever reason. If true and properly investigated, they could establish that as an absolute.

Offline Trieste

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Re: Hard and Soft Sciences (Trieste and Sure)
« Reply #3 on: July 29, 2010, 08:41:45 PM »
The application of the scientific method relates to the manner in which a subject is employed. Certainly, chemistry and physics textbooks don't utilize the scientific method when they teach; that would be a little silly when you're trying to explain the basics of an atom to someone. So, the subject itself is not expected to apply the scientific method. However, once one leaves the realm of basics and moves into applied territory, the scientific method becomes important. Saying that lack of application of the scientific method is the fault of the discipline and not the subject is like saying that rain is the fault of the water but not the clouds. Unless I am misunderstanding your meaning with that, which I may be.

The study of humans is governed by its own rules in all areas; hard science and soft science alike have their rules for what is ethical to to do other people. We do learn a lot when those rules are disregarded, also, but neither makes it easier to control. However, there are some very clever psychology experiments out there that control for things pretty well. Like I said, psych seems to ride the line. Less so with sociology and anthropology. With these, either you're just watching what happens without actually actively testing anything, or you're putting a city full of unsuspecting subjects through an experiment with no control. This could be considered the human experiment, but that seems to be more tongue in cheek than anything.

That's about all the reply I have in me, lately, but I wanted to give you something to chew on for now.

Offline SureTopic starter

Re: Hard and Soft Sciences (Trieste and Sure)
« Reply #4 on: July 30, 2010, 06:32:53 PM »
Quote
The application of the scientific method relates to the manner in which a subject is employed. Certainly, chemistry and physics textbooks don't utilize the scientific method when they teach; that would be a little silly when you're trying to explain the basics of an atom to someone. So, the subject itself is not expected to apply the scientific method. However, once one leaves the realm of basics and moves into applied territory, the scientific method becomes important. Saying that lack of application of the scientific method is the fault of the discipline and not the subject is like saying that rain is the fault of the water but not the clouds. Unless I am misunderstanding your meaning with that, which I may be.

I'm not sure I completely understand your metaphor, either.

Quote
The study of humans is governed by its own rules in all areas; hard science and soft science alike have their rules for what is ethical to to do other people. We do learn a lot when those rules are disregarded, also, but neither makes it easier to control. However, there are some very clever psychology experiments out there that control for things pretty well. Like I said, psych seems to ride the line. Less so with sociology and anthropology. With these, either you're just watching what happens without actually actively testing anything, or you're putting a city full of unsuspecting subjects through an experiment with no control. This could be considered the human experiment, but that seems to be more tongue in cheek than anything.

A bit off base from what I meant, but it brings up a problem Soft Sciences have that Hard Sciences generally do not. Ethics are much more restrictive of Soft Sciences, which creates issues. The Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram I think it was) Experiment were both deemed unethical.

As I said, because that is impossible. And observation is a legitimate way to gather data, even if it's not from an experiment, isn't it? It's not ideal, I'll grant you, but it was what a lot of mainstays of science today were derived from since the scientific method is fairly new in its universality. And before I can answer your second half, is your objection to the scientific or normal definition of 'no control'?

As an aside evolution is not science, by that definition. We cannot create evolution in a lab, let alone the evolutions of specific species, and we can't even go out and look for it since it takes so long. Yet scientists will openly state it is more than a theory. We certainly have evidence for it, but none of that evidence is testable in the way you describe.