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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Difference Between Hard Science and Soft Science

By February 14, 2014

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Chemistry, physics and biology are considered to be hard sciences. (Getty Images)You may have heard the natural sciences (chemistry, physics, biology) called the hard sciences and the social sciences (history, political science) referred to as the soft sciences. Certain sciences, such as psychology and sociology, used to be considered soft science and now are considered hard science. So, you may be wondering about the difference between hard and soft science.

It isn't that one type of science is more rigorous or challenging than the other. For example, while you may consider chemistry harder to understand than anthropology, that does not have anything to do with chemistry being considered a hard science and anthropology being a soft science. Rather, it has to do with experimental design and the scientific method. Hard science involves experiments where it is relatively easy to set up controlled variables and make objective measurements. Particularly in sciences dealing with people, it may be difficult to isolate all the variables that may influence an outcome. In some cases, controlling the variable may even alter the results! Simply put, it is harder to devise an experiment in a soft science.

The terms "hard science" and "soft science" are used less often than they used to be, in part because the terminology is misunderstood and therefore offensive. People perceive "harder" to imply "more difficult" when it may be much more challenging to devise and interpret an experiment in a so-called soft science than a hard science. The distinction between the two types of science is a matter of the how strongly you can state, test and then accept or reject the hypothesis. In the modern world, the degree of difficulty is less related to discipline than it is to the specific question, so one might say the terms "hard science" and "soft science" are outdated. What do you think?

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Comments

February 24, 2013 at 11:39 am
(1) Ron Pavellas says:

Is there any reference point, other than the scientific method, for sciences which seem softer than chemistry and physics? If a discipline cannot fulfill the requirements of the scientific method, can it be science at all? Maybe such disciplines need to find another term.

July 30, 2013 at 11:05 am
(2) Hannah Osul says:

Thank you for your clear and unbiased explanation.As a student of cultural anthropology I get annoyed when people suggest disciplines such as anthropology,sociology or philosophy are less valid than others;math,chemistry etc.I think it’s a shame that there is a hierarchy within the sciences,that I so often have to battle my way through conversations with other students,my friends or my parents to convince them that anthropology is equally as important to the development of human thought as any other science.I’m not arguing against the idea of anthropology as a soft science-but we need to redefine what soft means.There are clear differences between investigative methods within say,chemistry&those employed by anthropology or sociology,but neither is anymore valid- in fact we should consider that one draws upon and betters the other.It is obvious that contemporary life would not have been possible without the great work of physicists or mathematicians but anyone familiar with the work of Kuhn,Latour or Foucault will recognize that these sciences are contextual&informed by cognitive&cultural shifts within history.Disciplines like anthropology helpto acknowledge that no science is robust enough not to be tempered by human fault-by interest,by subjectivity or aesthetic appeal(the Meselson-Stahl experiment is considered ‘the most beautiful in biology’)The soft sciences are therefore crucial to the development of hard science as they push the boundaries of what it means to think-where is falsity if truth is always contextual.Nothing exists in a vacuum.Math,physics&chemistry all work within the boundaries of their own discursive paradigms,making it easy to discern facts within an investigation.There is no official truth or falsity within the soft sciences because these ideals in themselves encourage stagnancy of thought.Ultimately it is their work to motivate thinking enough that paradigms can be broken so science can progress and that, to me, is very important indeed.

August 14, 2013 at 2:02 pm
(3) david allan van says:

Hard scientists do most of their work in labs, where things are neat, labeled, organized, and controlled. Social scientists do most of their work in the field, where things are anything but.

Hard scientists can achieve levels of exactitude unattainable by social scientists, measuring changes and tolerances in tenths and hundreds of thousandths of centimeters and degrees and electron paths. Social scientists can’t.

A rock doesn’t care much about its mass or the elements that it contains. Humans on the other hand, want to do the right thing or are prone to being contrary, and will brag, lie, distort, and often try to please the researcher. Sodium chloride doesn’t.

Sample selection is far more critical for social scientists than hard scientists. Someone looking at the oil content of shale can go to a spot and get a guaranteed representative sample, spectroanalyzed and carbon-dated. Sociologists who have target subjects will never know to what extent those people’s upbringing, family situation, mood, physical condition, education, training, religious upbringing, toothache, ADD, socialization experiences, shoes that pinch, and what happened in traffic on the way home from work while listening to something that pleased/angered them on the radio affects the outcome of the interview, or that the subject hates red but loves daisies, thinks “reality shows” are stupid and listens to Mozart.

Hard scientists live in a well-defined, finite world. Humans live in a far more intricate, involved, and messy world.

The beauty of the hard sciences is the rigor they bring. What the social scientists aspire to is to apply the principles of the hard science world to the soft sciences. All good soft scientists know we can never “know” things the way the hard sciences do. But we also know that the more we seek to be like them, the more accurate will be the things we find and learn.

My heroes are Physicists.

david allan van nostrand
Applied Sociology and Knowledge Management

November 23, 2013 at 2:06 am
(4) Allex Colvin says:

They are two sides of the same coin of human inquiry with equally long histories. Hard scientists must first know what the history of his inquiry is: who has done this before? What were their conclusions? Try answering that without a history of the field. And social scientists use many hard sciences to reach their conclusions. The graphs and statics of mathematics invariably populate social science papers. Neither is better; they are two columns supporting the same house. remove one and the other does not stand long. Any competitiveness between the two is pure arrogance and ego, and has little scientific merit. They compliment and built on each other…as they should.

December 17, 2013 at 5:11 pm
(5) Katie says:

I am A Sociology teacher and each year students who are interested in my course often approach me with, ‘ Isn’t Sociology a soft subject? Will Universities recognise the qualification?’ With this I think its important to really understand what the difference between a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ science is so that students can make an informed decision to help them structure their own learning journey.

No discipline is ‘better’ than another- that is subjective- FACT! And this is something many social scientist accept. Social scientists use a range of scientific methods in order to conduct the studies because they too, like Science seek ‘truth’. We want to understand society and the people who live and function within it. Some social scientists use lab experiments where others prefer to use enriched qualitative data.

Social sciences encourage many valuable skills that are needed in higher education sector and in the wider world of work. Social sciences help you really understand individuals and how the world truly works from the perspective of the subject. People are not just bodies that should be measured- a deeper psychological, sociological and anthropological understanding is required to truly understand the world.

Science and social science need each other. Ditch or change the labels so that students are not pressured into a particular subject due to ‘status’. Enjoy learning. Enjoy life.

February 13, 2014 at 4:41 pm
(6) Lishui says:

I feel that the distinction between “hard” and “soft” sciences has been a bit of a cop-out by the scientific community, and used as an excuse to reject experimental data that are “too close to the heart.”

Basically, the rules of thermodynamics apply just as much to history and psychology as they do in physics and chemistry. However, researchers in history and psychology tend to be far more interested in putting forward a specific point of view, often of a moral quality that is important to the researchers (and their funders). Citing the concept that these are “soft sciences,” and therefore harder to set up bench experiments with strict variable control, the reliance is on statistical trends, and then there is an over dependence on handling the numbers, and then there is a lack of going back to test the variables afterward, saying that it’s not possible or realistic with the “soft sciences.” the result is an epidemic of bad science, particularly in the field of medicine.

The result is also an epidemic of common people not grasping basic scientific principles in <i>any</i> field, and instead deferring to “expert” opinion …as interpreted and presented by media, who also have their own agenda!

All this nonsense is on its way out with the new physics of Complexity Theory. Nobody can get away with fussy statistical manipulation and blame it on the fact that it’s a soft science anymore.

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