Guest essay by Steven Burnett
This is an essay regarding the fundamental differences between the hard and soft sciences. While I don’t emphasize climatology much in the essay, I believe this may provide some insight into the chasm of evidence and approach between the two.
Recently, more climate consenters have been starting to grapple with the uncomfortable fact that the discrepancies between models and reality are, in fact, significant. While there are still some holdouts there have been more than a few mainstream discussions about some of the “softness” in climate science.
In a way it’s an olive branch to the climate skeptics. While there are crazies on both sides of the climate debate, I find that the core of climate skepticism stems from articulating the differences between the hard and soft sciences. I have studied and been degreed in both, and would like to offer up some explanations and examples of the differences between them.
I have been a scientist since before I had proper memory formation. My father, an engineer, and I used to go for walks and he explained the physical world the way an engineer sees it. So, as the story goes, by the time I was 13 months I pointed to a condensation trail by an airplane and explained to my mother what it was and how it was formed.
My first childhood Hero was Egon Spengler, a ghostbuster, and I pulled out my encyclopedias and looked for definitions of all the terms used in the movies and cartoons. I was then introduced to Back to the Future and my interests moved from nuclear particles to space time. Naturally my hero moved to Einstein. But it wasn’t just movies that influenced my development as a scientist. I had children’s books on Louis Pasteur, Dr. Ballard, Edison and Galileo. Each of these scientists drastically moved humanity’s understanding forward, despite enormous criticism of their theories and hypothesis. Needless to say my scientific heroes weren’t particularly popular in their day and age.
As a child I was listed as gifted learning disabled. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, dysgraphia, and ADD while I was young. I thus had poor social skills, a short attention span, and couldn’t write legibly. As an extrovert, having trouble with nonverbal communication was a massive struggle. I turned to my books, encyclopedias, and the library to attempt to understand and solve the problem. There is an incredible amount of information and not being able to focus appreciably on a single source led to research threads through multiple disciplines. At the end of the day my choice was simple, experiment with social techniques or give up. I chose the former.
I still perform regular experiments and log the data. All results are mentally catalogued, anomalies flagged and reviewed until I thoroughly understand what nuances I missed. The system isn’t perfect, I can intone or inflect improperly, I can also mistakenly use accurate but socially improper lexicon as my vocabulary is immense. Failures can lead to hostility, repudiation or ostracization. Society is more unforgiving than many realize, but my experiments have been fruitful. The application of successful techniques has helped me mitigate eccentric behaviors and evolve or cultivate strategies which help me appear normal. The proper application of the scientific method in my daily life is the difference between being functional and not.
Being able to screen good hypothesis formulation, experimental technique and results was an integral part of my development. Determining logical fallacies and errors, standards of proof and reproducibility was the difference between keeping friends and losing them. It is also how I fundamentally distinguish behind the hard and soft sciences.
The whole reason for this essay came from me stumbling upon the Wikipedia article attempting to distinguish between the two and being frankly dumbfounded. I have to reproduce the second paragraph in full so that everyone truly understands my issue.
“Philosophers and sociologists of science have not been able to confirm the relationship between these characteristics and perceived hardness or softness in empirical studies. Supposedly more “developed” hard sciences do not in fact have a greater degree of consensus or selectivity in accepting new results. Commonly cited methodological differences are also not a reliable indicator. Psychologists use controlled experiments andeconomists use mathematical modelling, but as social sciences both are usually considered soft sciences, while natural sciences such as biology do not always aim to generate testable predictions. There are some measurable differences between hard and soft sciences. For example, hard sciences make more extensive use of graphs,and soft sciences are more prone to a rapid turnover of buzzwords.”
In short philosophers, and sociologists of science, both soft science fields, haven’t been able to confirm the differences. They point to a lack of consensus in the hard sciences, controlled experiments and mathematical models. The analysis is about as meaningful as finding no difference between a peewee and professional basketball game because they both shoot rubberized orange balls at hoops. That is exactly the problem with the soft sciences, they can get the results they want by only evaluating the characteristics they choose.
Ironically I have been degreed in both the hard and soft sciences. I possess a bachelors in chemical engineering and psychology. Asking someone what they want to do for the rest of their life at 18 is a bit tough to answer especially when your knowledgebase and interests were as tremendously varied as were mine.
I started as a biological engineer, thought it was a ridiculous amount of work compared with the political science and business majors I roomed with and switched to psychology. I wasn’t too far into the psychology program before I realized I despised psychology and by extension the other soft sciences. I only graduated with the degree to spite the psychology program, I’m not joking.
The soft sciences spend the first two weeks of a course talking about how they are a science, and the next 13 weeks destroying every pillar of the scientific method. When my research methods professor used Carl Sagan’s essay a dragon in my garage as a means of saying that nothing can be proven or disproved, I dropped my textbook on the floor, so it would make a rather loud sound, stopping the lecture. I then dropped it again, and remarked that maybe next time it will stay up because we totally can’t prove the existence of gravity. Looking back it wasn’t very nice, but there is only so much rage I can contain.
That isn’t the only instance of things that resulted in a massive mental face palm in that program. In the soft sciences it’s accepted that the phenomena are inherently complex, thus it is acceptable to formulate a study that does not eliminate variables beyond the one being studied. Statistics is used to sort for the significance of a result.
For instance in a survey there is no regard given to the difference between people who choose to respond vs simply throwing it out, and all responses are considered correct regardless of the topic’s nature. Imagine performing a survey on human sexuality that asked about frequency, number of partners and propensity for cheating. Accepting any of the responses as representative of the population as a whole is not only unverifiable, it’s also very likely to be wrong.
Personal bias enters any discussion of results frequently. There is very strong evidence from monozygotic twin studies and others that IQ is strongly correlated with genetics. Because of the implications regarding racial IQ discrepancies, we received rather lengthy lectures about any variables, missed test parameters and the like, every time these studies entered the curriculum. Even though IQ heritability has generally been confirmed as 85%, regardless of the test used, the idea of nature vs. nurture is still considered a legitimate debate topic in this “scientific” field. More importantly the variables we were warned about are accounted for in the original studies.
Of course it’s perfectly acceptable to present an ad hoc change of the definition of intelligence without a preceding lecture and caveats about possible problems or complications. If it tickles the political fancy it’s taught, even if there are no empirical studies to support the hypothesis. Gardner’s hypothesis was only one politically correct theory taught with no evidence.
Carol Gilligan is a published feminist who wrote about male bias and suppression in adolescent development. Neither she nor her disciples have ever been able to validate her claims. In the textbook Adolesence and Emerging Adulthood, her theories would receive a dedicated page or more, and were filled with notations about how “her writings have received a wide audience”, or, that a school was “so impressed with Gilligans findings that school authorities revised the entire school curriculum”. By comparison the fact that both girls and boys self esteem declines in adolescence, that she only uses excerpts of interviews in her research, or that no corroboration of her results can be found, were minimized. The section concluded with the paragraph,
“although Gilligan’s research methods can be criticized for certain flaws, other researchers have begun to explore the issues she has raised, using more rigorous methods. In one study Susan Harter and her colleagues examined Gilligan’s idea of losing one’s “voice” in adolescence…. ….However Harter’s research does not support Gilligan’s claim that girls’ voice declines as they enter adolescence.” 
In the hard sciences, a lack of evidence and poor methodology usually excludes theories and researchers who promote them from the textbooks and the classroom, but in psychology, I was still tested on them.
Unfortunately soft science is spreading into the other domains. In my capstone course we had to watch the thoroughly debunked Gasland documentary. We heard about fracking fluids, well contamination and maybe just possibly earthquakes caused by the process. When I presented three studies that thoroughly destroyed the claims the professor dismissed them with a wave of his hand. We were required to take a course called energy and the environment, which is best described as green masturbation. When you present solar roads, indoor farming, renewables, and local agriculture, as a required engineering course without any sort of cost benefit analysis or numerical pretense what else can you call it?
Overall though, in chemical engineering we have very exact equations that give us very exact answers. These equations are derived from hundreds of experiments, outlining the variables for each substance used. Fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, heat transfer, physics, chemistry and other hard science disciplines have had to prove themselves correct by testing for the opposite conclusion. My thermodynamics textbook didn’t begin with a lecture about how scientific it is, it opened with the statement that the study of thermodynamics exists only because we haven’t found any instances where a system operates differently.
When neutrinos were detected moving faster than the speed of light it was a big deal. The result would have overwritten over 100 years of experiments saying it couldn’t be broken, it still hasn’t just FYI. When cold fusion experiments couldn’t be validated their proponents were laughed out of any major publication. In the hard sciences when the results of a hypothesis diverged from reality they were discarded and checked for errors, but it would still only take a single reproducible experiment to validate or invalidate the concept.
The same problems that plague psychology are rampant in climatology. Tribalism is strong enough that most are willing to break out into red or blue war paint. When faced with an incredibly complex problem they only design their experiments (climate models) to handle the variable they are interested in. Confounding variables, be it ENSO, the AMO, cosmic rays, TSI, ocean heating, surface albedo, UHI, and other impacts are ignored even though they have demonstrably significant impacts on their measurement parameter. When faced with falsifying data, the data is ignored or marginalized. There is no significant internal forensic review of the experimental construct once it can be declared dead, and they essentially keep cashing the checks and publishing as if the hypothesis are valid.
Please understand it’s not that soft sciences are pointless, they’re simply worthless. Examining what makes humans, society or even the climate tick are noble endeavors. The failure to demand reproducible or falsifiable results, reject failed hypothesis, or allow for and defend work that is riddled with personal or political bias is what undermines these fields, it’s what makes them “soft”. More succinctly the problem with these fields isn’t entirely methodological, it’s cultural and it exists at every stage of training.
Inevitably, the ignorance of logical fallacies and degradation of the sciences begs the question why. Perhaps its tied to the ever increasing percentage of American’s who are going to college. After all, more students means more professors. Perhaps it’s a hiring bias, and subsequent group think, or maybe hiring more professors simply means they have to lower standards. By the same token, making more money available for grants may allow for more shoddy research. My hard science background was rooted in survival, perhaps not needing to worry about your next meal is bad for scientists. Like Kohlbergs sixth stage of moral development, maybe it’s simply too difficult to uphold the standard. It’s Ironic that after all my research, and all my studies, that the most compelling insight likely comes from the ghostbusters.
If I may wax poetic for a moment, the hard sciences are like a rock while the soft sciences are like sand. They are fundamentally composed of the same stuff, but it’s the structure that makes them different. You must find a comfortable spot to rest on the rock but sand conforms around you. An uncomfortable rock must be dealt with, sand can simply be brushed away. Rock climbing requires training and equipment, a walk on the beach does not. I have had the opportunity to do both, and from personal experience, rock climbing is both harder and more fulfilling.
1. Bouchard, Thomas J. “Genetic Influence on Human Psychological Traits. A Survey.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 13.4 (2004): 148-51. Print.
2. Inbar, Y., and J. Lammers. “Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7.5 (2012): 496-503. Web.
3. Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. Print.