Hard Science and Soft Science

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Hard science v soft science
“Scientists these days tend to keep up a polite fiction that all science is equal. Except for the work of the misguided opponent whose arguments we happen to be refuting at the time, we speak as though every scientist's field and methods of study are as good as every other scientist's, and perhaps a little better. This keeps us all cordial when it comes to recommending each other for government grants.”

Fighting words about the nature of the scientific enterprise as seen from the inside by a participating scientist. And what makes these sentences even more remarkable is that they were not uttered behind close doors in a room full of smoke, but printed in one of the premiere scientific magazines in the world, Science.

It was 1964, the year I was born, and the author was John R. Platt, a biophysicist at the University of Chicago. The debate between scientists on what constitutes “hard” (i.e., good, sound) and “soft” (i.e., bad, sloppy) science has not subsided since.

Platt was frustrated by the fact that some fields of science seem to make clear and rapid progress, while others keep mucking around without seemingly being able to accomplish much of relevance.

As Platt put it, in the same article: “We speak piously of ... making small studies that will add another brick to the temple of science. Most such bricks just lie around the brickyard.” Physics, chemistry and molecular biology are considered by Platt (and many others) as hard sciences, the quintessential model of what science ought to be.

Ecology, evolutionary biology, and even more fields like psychology and sociology, are soft sciences, and the maximal aspiration of people working in these fields ought to be to find a way to make them as hard as physics. Platt’s article is a classic that should be read by anyone interested in the nature of science, and he was right in pointing out the problem; he was not quite as right in diagnosing its roots however, and even...
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