Hard and Soft Science

Aug 30 2010 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Tribe of Science

HAHAHHAAAAA!!!!

Seriously! Who does GMP think she's fooling?

She puts up a post and a series of polls asking where are all the "hard" STEM bloggers. And writes extensively distinguishing "hard" STEM from "soft" STEM. This latter, apparently constitutes all the bio-medical types.

Leaving aside the hilarious fact that GMP somehow failed to notice all the geo-science, math geeks, computer science nerds, fizzy-cysts, engineers and assorted other "hard" science bloggers, I note that GMP felt compelled to put up this corrigendum:

Some people dislike the hard STEM/soft STEM distinction as it seems to imply that one of them is hard as in difficult and the other one is not. I most certainly don't think that and I don't know anyone who does. I simply use the above distinction as equivalent to a non-bio STEM/bio STEM field distinction, and I think most people do the same. But, as Namezia says below, you can alternatively consider it the physical/biological sciences distinction, although I am not sure where this type of classification leaves math and CS people or people who are engineers.

Heh. heh. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAH!!! oh, masterful!

Here's the thing, GMP. Nobody who is in biology, neuroscience, psychology... or (gasp) social sciences....favors this distinction. That in and of itself should tell you how it is used. The only "most people" who use this distinction are so called "hard" STEM people who are, yes, most certainly trying to run down other scientific disciplines as less rigorous, less precise and favored by smarter undergraduates who do not require grade inflation.

So please. Spare us your disingenuous corrections. Just sack up and FWDAOTI like a proper member of the "hard" STEM disciplines! We can take it....

38 responses so far

  • GMP says:

    My impression is that "soft" generally refers to soft materials (a legitimate materials science category) of which biological systems are prime examples (tissues, cells), so people often equate "soft" with bio and "hard" with physical sciences/engineering.
    Soft Matter journal anyone?

    Anyway, there is hard cond mat physics (solids) and soft cond matter phyics (gels, colloids, polymer, and yes bio systems). Even among inorganic materials, there are "hard" properties of materials (electronics, thermal, optical) and "soft" properties (generally mechanical -- response to stress, bendability etc., and more recently surface interactions with liquids etc.) Soft materials overall are actually quite fashionable and come with good funding prospects (in part because they open some avenues into NIH funding).

    Anyway, hard vs soft are not dirty words in my field.
    But, you are right DM, I most certainly should not apologize/explain myself. People will think what they will regarless of what I write or don't.

  • Nat says:

    Now hard/soft refers to the material studied?

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

  • gnuma says:

    Wait, sometimes I study squishy stuff. You could even characterize it as drippy. And sometimes, my material is an abstract representation of a molecule which I move around using a computer. I'm so confused --where do I fit in the world?

  • Anon says:

    Wherever you want.

  • rknop says:

    Dude, when it comes to science, there's Physics, and there's other. And when you say "other", you have to say it with your nose in the air and a general demeanour of disdain.

    (Hey, do you like how I spelled demeanor "demeanour"? I'm all Canadian and stuff now!)

    Now, you may think I'm saying this as a Physicist. In fact, I say this as an Astronomer, and I can find Physicists who will explain to you that Astronomy is part of the "other".

    More seriously... an excessive obsession with labelling, especially labelling that implies value judgements, is generally not conducive to progress.)

  • Kate says:

    Yes, yes, it should have been phrased much better. But I keep asking myself the same question, where are the non-bio people? Especially the mech/elec engineers. And especially the women.

  • I am mostly soft but hard in all of the right places. LOL.

    Yeah, I'm not so into the whole hard vs. soft thing. Categories like that just don't always apply, esp. when you're a hard-soft cross-disciplinarian like me. People in engineering don't use terms like that very often, even the completely non-bio "hard" ones.

  • Slant says:

    It is a strange thing, to consider the possibility of intellectual elitism in the hallowed halls of academia. Especially coming from the Great True Hard Sciences. Particularly as it implies a moment's thought on such matters such as psychology, sociology, biology and other hobbies.

  • [...] more: Hard and Soft Science | DrugMonkey [...]

  • Ty-bo says:

    I'm used to seeing the hard/soft "cutoff" (for those cheeky enough to use such a terribly vague distinction) somewhere between biology and psychology; I've never seen anyone suggest that it had anything to do with materials. I've also never seen anyone call biology or biomedical research "soft" (until now, anyway). Still wondering how the boundaries are cleaved so neatly in some people's minds... meh.

    Seems awfully absent-minded to forget that the historical use of the hard/soft 'distinction' is for the sake of marginalizing anything that's not-physics and comes from an era where Rutherford insisted the only science was physics, and all else was stamp collecting.

  • Morose says:

    Absentminded? Absentminded is forgetting to tie your shoes or losing your car keys. There is no guarantee anyone knows what Rutherfold said 100 years ago -- I certainly didn't until you wrote it.

  • Jeff says:

    I've always thought of my field (broadly, ecological evolution) as a "squishy" science. Not because it's less rigorous or precise, but because it's incredibly hard to eliminate confounding variables.

    I compare it to trying to figure out the mass of a brick and the mass of a jello mould (without cheating by using a balance). If you poke the brick with x force on a surface with j friction and it accelerates b m/s/s, you can be pretty sure that it has mass m.

    If you poke the jello mould, it might not move, but just deform. Or it will move with k friction instead of j because there's a microscopic layer of melted jello between the surface and the mould providing a lubricant. Or that same layer will make it stick to the surface more than normal because of van der Walls forces. Or your finger will actually penetrate the jello, spreading the force out instead of forward. Plus, all this assumes that the jello doesn't break while you're turning it out of the mould.

    Physicists derogatorily calling biology "soft" is like the brick scientists are saying that jellologists are less clever because we haven't figured out the equations that describe the trajectory of the jello mould when we throw it. They don't realize that we've had to come up with new math just to describe the way our subject behaves when we poke it.

  • I've definitely never heard that it is about the materials used. What's astrophysics, then? Are stars soft or hard?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    An excellent way to put it Jeff.

    (was there fruit molded into your Jello? Did the RA sneak a bite first? What is the ideal temperature for the Jello...and the inclined plane?)

  • GMP says:

    That's a division common in condensed matter/materials science, which is nowdays very large and connects to many engineering disciplines. There are obviously many other branches of physics that cannot be classified that easily as soft/hard (string theory, plasma physics, astrophysics) just as it is not easy to classify math or CS or chemistry as soft or hard. Biological systems are the most widely studied soft materials systems, but of course there are many in geology, physics, etc.

  • GMP says:

    Anybody who knows anything about soft matter systems agrees that soft systems are extremely complex and require their own math and complex simulation tools. Liquid crystals anyone? Oils, emulsions, foams? Biological systems are extremely complex for simulation. I don't know what physicists you talk to. Or you just assume physicists are only capable of is calculations based on second Newton's law?

  • Funky Fresh says:

    HA HA HA! How did I miss this hot bullshit? Soft materials? HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Pingy-Pants!

    Soft scientists study things that squish when you touch them! Duh!?!?!!!

  • Pascale says:

    So urology can be a hard or soft specialty in medicine, depending on the state of the organ at the time of the exam?

  • CraftRage says:

    LMAO! Soft science is the study of soft things? ROFLMAO!

    I'm an accountant and not a scientist, so my exposure to science is limited to science blogs and sf books, but even I know that this kind of statement is patently disingenuous. "Oh, no, 'soft' isn't meant an insult, it just means that you study soft things!"

    It would be more honest to ask "Where will I find a blog that will confound even another scientist" or "Where are all the stereotypical mad-scientist social misfits blogging their endless streams of theoretical data that are murky to other scientists and meaningless to laymen?" Ick.

    In the world of fiction, there is hard sf, which is woven together using scientific or technical detail, or soft sf, which is set in a technologically advanced human society, but tends to be woven together with social justice issues. To me, fiction is the only place where there's a use for tags like "hard" and "soft" science.

  • CraftRage says:

    LMAO! Soft science is the study of soft things? ROFLMAO!

    I'm an accountant and not a scientist, so my exposure to science is limited to science blogs and sf books, but even I know that this kind of statement is patently disingenuous. "Oh, no, 'soft' isn't meant an insult, it just means that you study soft things!"

    It would be more honest to ask "Where will I find a blog that will confound me" or "Where are all the stereotypical mad-scientist social misfits blogging their endless streams of theoretical data that are murky to other scientists and meaningless to laymen?"

    In the world of fiction, there is hard sf, which is woven together using scientific or technical detail, or soft sf, which is set in a technologically advanced human society, but tends to be woven together with social justice issues. To me, fiction is the only place where there's a use for tags like "hard" and "soft" science.

  • CraftRage says:

    Wow. And obviously I'm not smart enough to keep from submitting a duplicate comment, so whatever.

  • ARJ says:

    Precision, empiricism, and deduction are indeed gradients, not static entities, so of course there is hard and soft science; science isn't a monolith by a long shot. Indeed, I've known of astrologers who operated as empirically as some of the soft "scientists" I've witnessed in my life. Just a silly debate (among some very defensive folks)...

  • And instead of ignoring GMP's gibberish, you make a whole fucken grandiose production out of itte? Brilliant, holmes.

  • chris p says:

    I like the terms "Exact sciences" for math, statistics and computer science. Wikipedia lets more into the fold of exact http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exact_science

  • lylebot says:

    There may be subsets of computer science that are "exact" by that definition, but it is definitely not the case that all of computer science is. Look into Natural Language Processing for one example of an inexact science that some might think of as "soft".

    As for statistics, I happen to think its application involves a lot more qualitative decision-making than most people want to acknowledge.

  • antipodean says:

    Statistics is not exact, it's approximate, almost by definition. It's the quantification of error and variability. That's why we're so dependent on stats in biological science.

    Mathematics is the queen of sciences as it's the only place where you can actually prove something.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    I propose that blogging is the hardest science of them all.

  • Katharine says:

    I thought the 'soft sciences' were social sciences.

    I mean, aside from the fact that they appear to be plagued with postmodernist bullshit, they aren't exactly the most rigorous of fields.

    Either OP is naive about the whole soft-hard dichotomy or is pulling our legs.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Many social science studies are considerably more rigorous and scholarly than your biomedical GlamourPubs. And a person in a "hard" science I trust was just relating a story about a crap manuscript. So Katharine the OP is not naive. It sounds as though you might have some biases to work through, though.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Can we all agree that Hauser's work was soft science? ;>)

  • cmt says:

    Dear everyone,

    I am a soft condensed-matter physicist. I study "soft" materials which, roughly, means either complex fluids or materials that have elastic moduli soft enough that they are easily deformable. Often thermal fluctuations are important. And there are many biologically-inspired systems that are also considered soft condensed-matter. There are folks, for example, who study the linear response of actin networks. Other examples of soft materials are liquid crystals, colloids, gels, rubber, and so on. If this is not what you study, you are not a "soft" scientist. You are an astrophysicist, or a biologist, or whatever.

    "Hard" condensed-matter is concerned with electrons, metals, graphene, etc.

    Granted, it's a stupid name for a field. and it's not clear that this is what the original blog post was refering to with "soft" science, but give me a fucking break and do a little fucking research before making idiots of yourselves.

    Please allow me to refer you to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_matter for more information.

  • Kate says:

    Oh, the brick does all those things too, just at a different scale. There's a whole field called precision engineering that looks that these things.

  • Anonymous says:

    I don't want to get into a discussion about what GMP's intention in her post might have been. This is for the people who never heard the term "soft matter" before.

    I am a physicist studying mechanical properties of cells. People like me (originally from all sorts of parent disciplines) are grouped as "soft matter" scientists. The name of our research group has the term 'soft' in it. And, this respectable (to physicists at least) archive site has an entire section for papers related to soft condensed matter: .

  • Anonymous says:

    This is anonymous (Sep 1, 4:39am) again.

    Sorry, the link got lost in my last comment: The site is called "arxivDOTorg"

    http://arxiv.org/list/cond-mat.soft/recent

  • Nat says:

    Isn't it curious that the people who seem to define the hard versus soft STEM are physics types who conveniently place themselves in the 'hard' category?

    I don't know any biologists who bother to talk about this garbage. I guess we're able to deal with more than a toddler level binary discrimination task.

  • For all the bluster around here, you'd think that anyone had already refuted the idea that some sciences are less exact, less rigorous, less precise and less reliable. Unfortunately, none of you have.

    Just bringing some reality into the discussion. You may now continue your self-congratulatory wank-fest, assholes.

  • Just bringing some reality into the discussion.

    Says the ridiculous cocknozzle with a white-on-black blogge theme.

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