What's Soft about Social Science?
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.
But then an event happens, like the horrific massacre at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and we all want to know what would drive someone to shoot and kill so many people. This is one example—albeit an extreme one—of why we need social science.
While the general public might have theories about why the Aurora shooter did what he did, which sometimes offer only simple answers, social scientists can study different hypotheses to empirically assess how accurate they really are. We can examine issues such as mental health, the importance of social isolation, the role of gun availability, family background, and self-image to see how important—if at all—these factors may be.
That said, it is extremely difficult to predict any one individual’s behavior or response to their circumstances, and it’s especially difficult to predict an event as uncommon as a rampage shooting. We do better at predicting larger patterns of behavior over the long run.
If anything, the task of understanding human behavior is more difficult than understanding the natural world around us. We have personalities, free will, and we are shaped by those around us in ways that are very difficult to understand. Quite literally, social science is a hard science in that it is very challenging to comprehend people’s thoughts and actions.
This is not to diminish the physical sciences in anyway; in fact it is an artificial distinction in many ways since there are overlaps between them. Human interaction shapes our physical health and medical conditions. Our geography and physical environment also affects our interactions with one another as well as our individual behavior, and we are impacted by our environment in ways shaped by our social circumstances. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg discusses in his research on heat waves, it’s not simply the ambient temperature that takes its toll on people; income, age, and limited social contacts helped predict who died during a 1995 heat wave in Chicago.
We can also understand the interactions between people and the natural world through social science. Many developing nations are facing severe food shortages and massive population booms that threaten to produce staggering levels of poverty. Demographers who study fertility patterns can help with population control in these nations; political scientists and sociologists can help us understand the role that power and politics play in food distribution channels, particularly in nations that existed as colonies for centuries before becoming independent.
Limiting or ignoring social science research would be detrimental for any society. Through rigorous methods, we answer the questions many people have about how humans behave and interact.