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Scientific American

The Really Hard Science

published October 2007 | comments (12)
To be of true service to humanity, science must be
an exquisite blend of data, theory and narrative
magazine cover

Over the past three decades I have noted two disturbing tendencies in both science and society: first, to rank the sciences from “hard” (physical sciences) to “medium” (biological sciences) to “soft” (social sciences); second, to divide science writing into two forms, technical and popular. And, as such rankings and divisions are wont to do, they include an assessment of worth, with the hard sciences and technical writing respected the most, and the soft sciences and popular writing esteemed the least. Both these prejudices are so far off the mark that they are not even wrong.

I have always thought that if there must be a rank order (which there mustn’t), the current one is precisely reversed. The physical sciences are hard, in the sense that calculating differential equations is difficult, for example. The variables within the causal net of the subject matter, however, are comparatively simple to constrain and test when contrasted with, say, computing the actions of organisms in an ecosystem or predicting the consequences of global climate change. Even the difficulty of constructing comprehensive models in the biological sciences pales in comparison to that of modeling the workings of human brains and societies. By these measures, the social sciences are the hard disciplines, because the subject matter is orders of magnitude more complex and multifaceted.

Between technical and popular science writing is what I call “integrative science,” a process that blends data, theory and narrative. Without all three of these metaphorical legs, the seat on which the enterprise of science rests would collapse. Attempts to determine which of the three legs has the greatest value is on par with debating whether Π or r2 is the most important factor in computing the area of a circle.

Consider data and theory first. I began this column in April 2001 with what I called “Darwin’s dictum,” which came from a quote from the sage of Down in response to a critique that On the Origin of Species was too theoretical and that he should have just “put his facts before us and let them rest.” Darwin responded by explaining the proper relation between data and theory: “About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize, and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”

Charles Darwin’s dictum holds that if observations are to be of any use they must be tested against some view — a thesis, model, hypothesis, theory or paradigm. The facts that we measure or perceive never just speak for themselves but must be interpreted through the colored lenses of ideas. Percepts need concepts, and vice versa. We can no more separate our theories and concepts from our data and percepts than we can find a true Archimedean point — a god’s-eye view — of ourselves and our world.

Data and theory are not enough. As primates, humans seek patterns and establish concepts to understand the world around us, and then we describe it. We are storytellers. If you cannot tell a good story about your data and theory — that is, if you cannot explain your observations, what view they are for or against and what service your efforts provide — then your science is incomplete. The view of science as primary research published in the peer-reviewed sections of journals only, with everything else relegated to “mere popularization,” is breathtakingly narrow and naive. Were this restricted view of science true, it would obviate many of the greatest works in the history of science, from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, the evolutionary biologist’s environmental theory about the differential rates of development of civilizations around the world for the past 13,000 years.

Well-crafted narratives by such researchers as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, the late Stephen Jay Gould and many others are higher-order works of science that synthesize and coalesce primary sources into a unifying whole toward the purpose of testing a general theory or answering a grand question. Integrative science is hard science.

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12 Comments to “The Really Hard Science”

  1. Maria José Granate Says:

    Very good ideas and text.
    I am sure writing popular science is the harder and the one more needed. There are a lot of researchers and only one Michael Shermer and one R. Dawkins!
    Our world needs many more like them.
    As a plant breeder and researcher I think quite simple to write a paper about my experiments on my choosen specie (Arracacia xanthorrhiza)but I hate to have to explain the conclusions to agriculturers…
    They barely can read or write, their vocabulary is very diferent from mine!
    I feel very unconfortable trying to make them understand why an action they and their fathers and grandfathers are used to do is not scientifically suitable.

  2. Richard V. Says:

    The need to ‘vulgarize’ science is imperative. It bridges the gap between the so-called ‘elite’, and the general public. This should not only be limited to science, but also to government policy.

    As a biologist, I understand Maria José Granaté’s previous comment about the difficulties of explaining the outcomes, and even the purpose of scientific enquiry…but what is even more important is the need to develop critical thought…and that can be promoted by easy access to scientific method….through exposure to ‘popular Science’. Make Science accessible to the masses…be fruitful and multiply.

    In addition to Mr. Dawkins and Mr. Shermer, there are several more excellent communicators of Science. Dr. David Suzuki (The Nature of Things – Canada (English) and Charles Tyssère – (Découverte – Canada (French)) immediately come to mind. I highly recommend their long-running and much watched weekly TV shows.

  3. Bryan Says:

    This seems slightly odd. I agree about the merits of popular science, “integrative science” and most of what this article discusses. But I never thought hard and soft sciences meant what Shermer assumes. Its not a description of their difficulty, but their “solidness”. “Hard” sciences are more firm, “soft” sciences are more pliable. That definition also deserves criticism and would make for an interesting article, but thats what the term always meant to me.

  4. J.P. McLaughlin Says:

    Isaac Asimov knew the importance of popular science writing so well that he devoted his life to it after starting out as a “hard” scientist. Who in their right mind could denigrate his contributions to our understanding and enjoyment of the sciences. Stephen Jay Gould was cut from the same cloth, and who can forget the sheer poetry of Loren Eiseley’s writings? I miss them all and am thankful for those who carry the tradition forward. They are of vital important to all Americans and all human beings if we are to survive in this world.

  5. John Beck Says:

    I have a handful of comments …

    First, allow me to ‘second the opinion’ of Bryan. The dichotomy is ‘hard v soft’ – not ‘hard v easy’. I have interpreted this as referring to how well developed the ‘paradigms’ (to use a term from Kuhn) of the field is.
    As an example, Biology became more ‘hardened’ when it adopted evolution and again with the discovery of DNA. These crystallized the field and helped define what questions a Biologist asks. Physics started becoming ‘hardened’ in the era of Newton. Sociology is still searching for those central paradigms.

    Second, I disagree slightly with Dr. Shermer’s statement:
    If you cannot tell a good story about your data
    and theory [...] then your science is incomplete.

    For me the theory *is* the story. A theory, in science, is a model or explanation of how a particular phenomenon ‘works’. In that sense it is a story about the phenomenon. I do agree with the idea that without a story (theory) the science is incomplete. After all, the goal of science is to explain, IOW: produce theories.

    Third, popular science writing and scientific papers have two very different purposes. Comparing them is comparing apples and oranges. Popular science writing is basically informal science education -it is more similar to science textbooks than science journals. Scientific papers are part of the scientific process – scientists communicate their observations, explanations, etc to each other so the community can develop theories. Science is a communal effort after all – and since the members of the community are often spread across the globe science papers are the primary method of communication. Asking which is more important popular science writing or scientific papers is tantamount to: which is more important science education or scientific research. Of course, Dr. Shermer gets it right: there is nothing to teach if we don’t do research and there’s not point in making discoveries if we don’t teach people about it.

    Fourth, I strongly agree that popularizing science is not well respected. I am the Education and Public Outreach representative for my research group (I am also a research scientist and instructor). I have a hard time convincing my colleagues to speak to the public – most do not see that it is worth their time; some have tried to talk me out of doing Public Outreach – after all, tenure is not awarded based on how many appearances one makes on TV.

    Still, we need to convey scientific theories and principles to the general public for their good as well as our own.

  6. John C. Wheeler Says:

    I am a theoretical physical chemist. I’ve worked in and taught statistical mechanics and thermodynamics of phase
    transitions for most of my life. I have always understood
    the terms “hard” and “soft” in describing the sciences as
    referring to the sharpness with which one can distinguish correct from incorrect theories in that science. That is, how definitely one falsify a theory. In physics, theories make predictions of almost incredible precision, so that if the theory is wrong, it is very clear that it’s wrong and by just how much. As one moves to chemistry, the situation becomes a bit more blurry. It used to be that this was even truer of biology, although starting with Darwin, and increasingly with the advent of genetics, biochemistry, the
    recognition of the role of DNA in heredity, biology has
    become a much “harder” science in this sense. I think you create a straw man when you criticize the terms “hard” and “soft” science in terms of the difficulty or ease of doing the science.

  7. Juan Carlos Marvizon Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of popularizing science. However, we should be careful to distinguish between scientific theories and the ideologies masquerading as science that we often find in popular science books. For example, both Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker propose an ideology in which humans are controlled by the genes, leading to a pessimistic and deterministic view of human nature. The science purported to support this ideology is in fact quite weak. For example, in “The Selfish Gene” Dawkins use a definition of gene that is circular with his theory and totally at odds with the modern definition of gene as a segment of DNA encoding a protein. Science writers should have the honesty to establish a clear distinction between they scientific theories they explain and the ideas that they think are supported by them.

  8. Shermer on Science « Complex Adaptive Systems Says:

    [...] or perish” dictum in academia for this trend to continue.  Michael Shermer wrote a recent Scientific American article which makes the case well and calls for more integrative and narrative scientific [...]

  9. vivek v raykar Says:

    I like concept of integrative science.Just to think of random examples that come to my mind are writers such as Jacob bronowski,Lewis thomas and Oliver sachs.I will like to broaden the concept to mean integrative knowledge since divisions such as science,history,philosophy are made for producers of knowledge and not for curious ,inquisitive and polymath minds who consume them.

  10. gerry Says:

    I am really disappointed that Shermer understood hard sciences as difficult to do, and soft sciences as easy to do.

    When I first met that distinction I already read and correctly that hard sciences are hard in the sense that they are based on facts, while soft sciences are based on opinions.

    Then also hard sciences are very precise while soft sciences are very imprecise.

    Consider the theory of evolution that is an example of soft science which is similar to psychoanalysis, but the theory of relativity that is really hard science.

    How is that?

    See any precision in the theory of evolution and any genuine facts in evolution? It is no different in its essence from psychoanalysis

    Now, compare the precision in the theory of relativity and the genuine facts it is founded upon.

    What precision are we talking about?

    Think mathematics.

    What facts are we talking about?

    What about the speed of light in the theory of relativity, and the opinion in the theory of evolution: that with billions of years by chance a new species will appear from an earlier species, that is supposed to be a fact in the theory of evolution.

    I am really disappointed that Shermer missed the true and original meaning of the distinction between hard sciences and soft sciences of which the theory of evolution is glaringly one very soft science.

    gerry

  11. Broughton Says:

    The soft sciences are soft because of the irresponsibility of social “scientists” and the like. For example, they unashamedly abuse mathematics by using opinion polls to generate unitless numbers which they then feed into spreadsheets, adding apples and oranges, to support their wild left-wing hypotheses. Until some intellectual rigor and standardization and adherance to the scientific method are introduced into the social sciences, I fear the word “soft” is the mildest of the pejoratives they deserve.

  12. Brian Gerion Cardis Says:

    I have a doubt. Three decades ago who created this sciences rank (hard-medium-soft) ? I know what is but there are a lack from this source/origin.

    Thanks.

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