by Bethany Williams
At Science for Georgia, we place a lot of emphasis on the value of science. Our goal is to make science matter in Georgia. But what is science? Ask someone on the street a science subject and they’ll likely answer with a subject typically deemed a “hard science”: chemistry, biology, or physics. But “soft sciences” or social sciences like psychology, sociology, and political science are just as important and scientific. Although it is true that the nature of these sciences differ in some aspects, they also share important similarities and offer valuable contributions. So, let’s take a look at what makes soft sciences similar, different, and complimentary to other sciences.
Both hard and soft sciences use scientific methods.
The classic scientific method involves starting with observations, then moving on to questions, hypotheses, experiments, results, and conclusions. While social sciences might adjust their methods to better fit their object of concern, there is a large emphasis in all of its subfields in creating valid, reliable results. This means utilizing independent, dependent, and control variables as well as extensively reporting methods, results, and sources of errors. For example, psychology rely on animal experiments to measure the hormones related to certain emotions. There are also ethical human experiments, where experimenters expose people to different conditions to see how they might react. Case studies, which do not utilize the classic scientific method, are used to test introductory concepts and are supplemental to the wider, more scientific literature on a topic. Simply put, the research methods of social sciences are no less scientific than “hard” sciences.
Soft sciences study variables that are difficult to measure.
With both the hard and soft sciences utilizing scientific methods of study, one of the main differences comes from the object of their study. Where hard sciences mainly measure physical, objective, variables, the variables in social sciences might be more abstract. Social scientists are tasked with measuring subjective things like political beliefs, behavior, and even emotions. This requires them to develop creative solutions that measure subjective items while still holding up to scientific standards. Sometimes, that looks like finding physical ways to explain non-physical phenomenon, like using hormones to explain emotions. Other times, it means finding patterns that relate to certain non-physical phenomena to quantify them. It is in this part of social sciences that many misconceptions are born. Because they must look at such “non-scientific” topics as emotions or beliefs, some people believe that they are not doing “real science.” It is this ability to measure such complex ideas, at least in part, that makes social sciences so unique and powerful.
Soft sciences address what hard sciences cannot.
Both physical and nonphysical sciences need the other to create a full picture of human phenomena. Neuroscience and Psychology are an example of two science fields, one hard and one soft, that need each other to offer a complete picture. Neuroscience studies the physical components of the brain and the nervous system, an extremely complex organ. However, the brain is also where many non-physical phenomena occur, like feelings and emotions. Psychology studies these more abstract aspects. A good example of the importance of the connection between these two fields, and its importance, is Neurobiology and Behavioral Biology. This field studies where these Psychology and Neuroscience intersect, such as the release of chemical or hormonal signals when a person experiences fear or anger or happiness. Working together – hard and soft sciences explain the intersection between the tangible and intangible.
Soft sciences have important practical impacts.
Beyond the inherent value of studying the more abstract phenomena of our world, social sciences have important practical implications. Where physical sciences result in physical discoveries like the development of vaccinations or the exploration of the solar system, social sciences lead to the development of treatments for mental illnesses and more concrete ways to prevent political violence. Social sciences focus on different aspects of the world, and in doing so they present new opportunities in developing a better world. Without research in political science, we wouldn’t have any idea how to prevent authoritarian leaders from taking hold. Without communications research, we wouldn’t have any real evidence on how best to convey important ideas. Without psychology, we wouldn’t know nearly as much about the human brain or how to treat mental illness. The social sciences may seem abstract, but their implications are concrete. While their practice and results may be different from the physical sciences, the social sciences are anything but “soft.”