Soft Sciences, Hard Sciences

Do you think soft sciences are sciences in the same mode as physics and chemistry?

Hard sciences strive to understand the physical world and its phenomena. It uses observations that can be measured, shared, and verified by other researchers.

Soft sciences deal with human behavior in its social and cultural aspects. Examples of soft sciences are economics, sociology, psychology, and politics.

For example, Emile Durkheim in Rules of Sociological Methods (1895) wrote “Our main goal is to extend scientific rationalism to human conduct.” That sounds innocuous, yet consider the definition of environmental sociology—”the study of human interactions with the natural environment, typically emphasizing human dimensions of environmental problems, social impacts of those problems, and efforts to resolve them.” One’s morality affects the detection of problems, the cost of impacts, and the legitimacy of efforts to resolve them.

Soft sciences are not merely concerned with reality. They make many judgments in their framework—some moral, some theoretical.

For instance, economics has long exalted the rational and ignored emotive forces and any motives not rational. There has been shift in the past thirty years to include so-called behavioral economics. Now economics includes competing explanatory paradigms. Sociology has both normative (what should be done) and descriptive (what is done) modes. It’s a truism from philosophy that one cannot go from ‘ought’ to ‘is’. Thus relying on different aspects of sociology, one can base one’s position on what is and another can base their position on what ought to be.

Evaluative positions underlying many positions in policy discussions do not have objective answers.

  • What is humankind’s place in the world?
  • Are people qualitatively different from animals?
  • Is a person’s life infinitely valuable?
    • How much or little is it worth? Do you insist on the same value in all cases, like car accident, terrorist attack and pandemic?
  • Does the ends justify the means?
    • If you are certain a result is desirable, are you allowed to do anything to make it happen?

So what? Good question.

Public policy debates often have depend of theories from the social sciences. We mustn’t forget—social science theories already contain many judgments. Often the buy-in to such theories does not include many people outside the subject area, like political professionals and party members.

Policy arguments will never be satisfactorily resolved while only policy statements are discussed. The underlying dimensions that they positions are based on are essential elements of any meaningful policy debate.

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