By Karen Sternheimer
Social science is sometimes called “soft science” compared with physical, or “hard science.” You’ll rarely hear a social scientist use this distinction, though.
Why don’t we like it? Just as it sounds, “soft science” suggests that the social sciences aren’t really sciences. As psychologist Timothy D. Wilson wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed:
There has long been snobbery in the sciences, with the "hard" ones (physics, chemistry, biology) considering themselves to be more legitimate than the "soft" ones (psychology, sociology). It is thus no surprise that many members of the general public feel the same way. But of late, skepticism about the rigors of social science has reached absurd heights.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to eliminate funding for political science research through the National Science Foundation. In the wake of that action, an opinion writer for the Washington Post suggested that the House didn't go far enough. The NSF should not fund any research in the social sciences, wrote Charles Lane, because "unlike hypotheses in the hard sciences, hypotheses about society usually can't be proven or disproven by experimentation."
As Wilson describes, the social sciences use rigorous empirical research to test hypotheses, and we do use experimentation in some cases. And like physical sciences, the social sciences have made important discoveries about human behavior that have eased human suffering and provided important insights into both individuals and groups. As I have previously blogged about, the public hears lots of stories about social science research that seems trivial or obvious, leading some people to support cuts to funding for research.