Science: Hard vs. Soft

For nearly 200 years, many people have long had an intuitive sense of a hierarchy of the sciences, from “hard”, well-established, rigorous, and precise, to “soft”, the opposite.

  • Physical sciences: hard
  • Biological sciences: medium
  • Social sciences: soft

This intuition is supported by a wide range of assessments and measurements, and a recent one is in PLOS ONE: “Positive” Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences, with greater softness meaning more positive reported results.

Controlling for observed differences between pure and applied disciplines, and between papers testing one or several hypotheses, the odds of reporting a positive result were around 5 times higher among papers in the disciplines of Psychology and Psychiatry and Economics and Business compared to Space Science, 2.3 times higher in the domain of social sciences compared to the physical sciences, and 3.4 times higher in studies applying behavioural and social methodologies on people compared to physical and chemical studies on non-biological material. In all comparisons, biological studies had intermediate values.

Author Daniele Fanelli continues in his paper,

… in some fields of research (which we will henceforth indicate as “harder”) data and theories speak more for themselves, whereas in other fields (the “softer”) sociological and psychological factors – for example, scientists’ prestige within the community, their political beliefs, their aesthetic preferences, and all other non-cognitive factors – play a greater role in all decisions made in research, from which hypothesis should be tested to how data should be collected, analyzed, interpreted and compared to previous studies.

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