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    A Message To The Sciency Elite: Step Out Of The Lab And Into The Real World
    By Andrea Kuszewski | September 3rd 2010 07:53 PM | 32 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Andrea

    Andrea is a Behavior Therapist and Consultant for children on the autism spectrum, residing in the state of FL; her background is in cognitive

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    This week I have heard a lot of scuttle about what the difference is between "hard" and "soft" science, or if the distinction should exist at all. For me, science has been defined by whether or not you use the scientific method- regardless of the discipline- biology, anthropology, psychology, yes, even social science. I mention social science, because social scientists always seem to get shit on by the sciency elite, and I'm hitting my limit of what I can stand to hear without stepping up and saying something.

    I have been busy the last few days dealing with some very unpleasant-yet-necessary things, but I decided to take a few moments to write this article, because frankly, I am sick of hearing the [explitive] whining. I also thought this would be a perfect time to write said article due to the heinous nature of what is going on in the world right now- which you science elitists may have missed because it is happening outside your lab.

    The original blog post from earlier this week, written by an inexcusably ignorant person, GMP (Grossly Moronic Person?) asking "where the STEM or 'hard' science bloggers were" started this whole crapstorm about what the difference was between "hard" and "soft" science. While the original post was aggravating enough, reading some of the comments both to that one and to the response posts by DrugMonkey and Isis were even more so.

    Now, I always knew there was this elitism in science, but I thought that with modern technology and being in the information age, where there is pretty much no excuse for such ignorance, that it would be somewhat less than in years past. I mean, you couldn't fault people too much pre-Galileo for believing the world was flat because they just didn't have the tools to see this for themselves, but nowadays they are just idiots.

    This brings me to ask the question- do those of you members of the sciency elite even know what social scientists do? Or do you not even bother to investigate these things because you see their practice as so far below what you do in your labs that it doesn't warrant the effort?

    Because social scientists study populations and societies, is their work less important to science or less scientific in nature? If their "lab equipment" doesn't come with pipettes or a set of explosive chemicals in cool little vials, is it not really a lab? True, social scientists generally don't wear labcoats, and don't fiddle with chemicals. Their equipment is in the form of software, technology and their brains. They are out in the field, actually gathering data on people- sometimes very dangerous people. So their safety hazards are not in the form of acids or chemicals- they are in the form of bullets or bombs, or threats against them or their families, which requires them to be prepared to move at a moment's notice if those threats become all too real.

    And yet, they still plug along, doing their scientific work, because it serves society and because it is necessary work to be done. They often do their work behind the public eye, getting very little recognition for the value of the work they do- in fact, they often get crapped on by ignorant scientists who work in the "real" sciences. I mean, that's the crux of this whole "hard" and "soft" debate, isn't it? What a "real" science is?

    Take a look at what is going on in Latin America right now. Mexico is basically being run by the cartels, yet many people who don't live in Mexico (and some who do) are sticking their fingers in their ears, singing, pretending everything is hunky-dory, meanwhile, hundreds of people are dying practically every week (this may seem off-topic, but I have a point, I promise). Here are some facts from AP:

    MONTERREY, Mexico — Mexican soldiers killed at least 30 suspected cartel members in two shootouts near the U.S. border in a region that has become one of biggest battlegrounds in the country's drug war, authorities said Friday.

    Twenty-five of the suspects were killed Thursday during a raid on a building in Ciudad Mier in Tamaulipas state. The other five were killed Friday in neighboring Nuevo Leon state, during a shootout on a highway leading to the border, the Mexican Defense Department said in a statement.

    All 30 gunmen were believed to belong to the Zetas gang — the group suspected of killing 72 migrants nearly two weeks ago in what could be Mexico's biggest cartel massacre to date.

    Violence along Mexico's northeastern border with Texas has reached warlike proportions amid fighting between security forces and two feuding drug gangs — the Zetas and the Gulf cartel, former allies who split this year and started a vicious battle for trafficking routes in the area.

    One of two survivors of the massacre last month — an Ecuadorean — said the killers identified themselves as Zetas and gunned down the migrants because they refused to work for the gang.

    A military aircraft flying over Ciudad Mier on Thursday spotted several gunmen in front of a building, the Defense Department statement said. When ground troops moved in, gunmen opened fire, starting a gunbattle in which 25 suspected cartel members died and two soldiers were wounded.

    Authorities rescued three people believed to be kidnapping victims in the raid, according to the statement. The military said troops seized 25 rifles, four grenades, 4,200 rounds of ammunition and 23 vehicles.

    Earlier, a military spokesman said the gunmen were believed to be on a property controlled by the Zetas.

    The second shootout erupted Friday morning outside the town of Juarez in Nuevo Leon, on a highway leading to McAllen, Texas.

    Soldiers went to the area after receiving an anonymous tip that armed men were circulating in a black SUV, according to a military spokesman. He provided the information on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal his name. The spokesman said the armed men opened fire, provoking the shootout that killed five gunmen, all of whom were believed to be Zetas.

    (added 9/4/2010, 2:24 AM) Another source now confirms the death toll on Thursday is up 2 from 25 to 27, which brings the total number of cartel members killed Thursday and Friday to 32.

    Source: Mark Walsh, Associated Press, September 3, 2010

    This is horrible, you may say. And you may be asking, how can we stop such violence? Or how can we get the kind of information necessary to remedy some of these horrific acts and find solutions to prevent further incidents like this?

    And what does this have to do with science?

    Well, data is collected and analyzed regarding these illegal agents and their criminal activities- predictions are made about patterns of future activity and targets, and networks of relationships between various illegal agents are modeled with statistical software. Who collects this kind of data? Social scientists. WHOA!!! Social scientists collect data? For real? You mean... they actually generate and test hypotheses, analyze data, and publish results? NO F-ING WAY!!!

    Yes, you sciency elitists, this is the kind of work some social scientists do. They investigate corruption, crime, and state capture, track and outline social networks of corruption, analyze and interpret that criminal activity, analyze the science behind the personalities of the sociopaths who orchestrate these networks, and provide governments with this information, so that we can design public policy to try and put an end to the corruption and murder that seems to have become the baseline for Latin America over the last few decades. Now that it is spilling over into Arizona and Nevada, perhaps more people will start to appreciate the importance of this type of work.

    So social scientists aren't in their little labs, designing new drugs or investigating DNA, so maybe it doesn't sound very sciency. However, social scientists are held up to the same strict standards of scientific rigor that other disciplines are, only in a different way- which makes it just as relevant as a science. That's probably why it's called Social SCIENCE. Wow. Mind-blowing.

    About a month ago, during the PepsiGate scandal, Virginia Heffernan, journalist for the NY Times, wrote an article criticizing the sciblings (writers at ScienceBlogs) for their elitism, snobbery, and lack of scientific content (ironically) in their blogs. This morphed into heated debates about who is and isn't relevant in the world of science journalism and blogging.

    One particular comment that arose from these discussions made me laugh (and I have tried to track down exactly where I read it and I can't, so this isn't an exact quote), something about how bloggers at ScienceBlogs think they are somehow "special snowflakes" because they happen to have a blog there. Even thinking about that comment now makes me chuckle. Because in a way, whoever made that comment was right in some respects. Even after many bloggers left to go solo, or start their own science blogging networks (according to my calculations, by the time this article is up on the web, there will be approximately 2.6 more science blogging networks up and running), they still carry that same sense of elitism with them.

    Now, I am not making a blanket statement about all Sciblings, present or former, or science bloggers in general. I am also not limiting my criticism to certain bloggers associated with ScienceBlogs, either. This elitism is far-reaching and widespread. Indeed there are many science bloggers worth following (which I do), and since I am a science blogger myself (among other things), I am certainly not knocking it as a genre. That point I am trying to make is there is a hell of a lot of good science that goes on outside their little world of science network cliques that never gets recognized as valuable, and often gets dismissed or criticized as "soft".

    Sometimes i just sit back and watch the roundabout of back-patting and congratulatory puffery that goes on all day via Twitter, facebook, and other social media sites, remarking incredulously about the brilliance of so-and-so's latest 4-paragraph summary of a research study, yada, yada, yada, and think- do they ever take a peek outside their little science fraternity that they've so carefully built and notice ANY other types of science that is going on in the world? If they did, they might not be so quick to knock social scientists.

    The fact is, many of these science blogging elitists (and you know who you are) are nothing more than officers in a virtual science writer fraternity that, quite honestly, looks rather silly to those of us who are cognizant of the rest of the world and all that is going on beyond our computers and our labs. I am not saying that the studies involving a specific scientific topic and narrow application are not important. Quite the opposite. I think these types of studies are very important and necessary. But I think ALL science is relevant and necessary, and it needs to be integrated more in a collaborative environment of research, instead of this hierarchy of whose science is more sciency, and who should or shouldn't be let into the fraternity.

    Now, I've probably pissed off a bunch of people, and I can already anticipate the comments to follow- defending how much more important their aspect of science is to saving lives, or how their discipline uses more statistics, or uses more pipettes, or uses more jargon in their pubs, so therefore, it is more science-elite.

    Save it. I don't want to hear it- I've been hearing it all week, and for years before that.

    Am I overreacting about this topic of science elitism? Maybe. But this issue has personal importance to me, and since this is my blog, I am going to be honest about my growing angst with this scientific snobbery. Let's everyone get our horse blinders off and step out of the microcosm that many of us have gotten used to and into the light. There's a whole world out there that needs science's help, and you can start by letting go of the ignorance about what science is and what science isn't and start collaborating instead.

    For information about a team of social scientists who do the type of work described in this article, go to metodoinstitute.org.

    *I also want to mention that I might not be able to respond to comments for a few more days; I am still dealing with some pressing matters. Thanks for the comments, though, and I will respond to them as soon as I can!

    Comments

    jlparkinson1
    Elitism is absurd by definition because it takes all of us to make society work. Not some of us, not just those of us who have tenure-track positions or who are elected to high office, that means all of us. Which should be intuitively obvious, but clearly it isn't, or else elitism wouldn't exist.
    Hank
    Well, I am all for elitism, but only for good reason.  And I am not some anonymous dope hiding on the Internet taking potshots at people and pretending to be an authority, my name is right here as is yours.    The elitism she is talking about is the faux-authority kind by people without any real credibility outside a small blogosphere audience.
    Amateur Astronomer
    Social sciences were ignored completely in the referenced blog. None of the social sciences appeared on the voting list. That is the complaint in this article. The blogger GMP compared soft science biology to hard science physics or mechanical engineering. GMP’s complaint was that she wasn’t finding enough of the hard science blogs. For Andrea I suppose that being left out as a category is more upsetting than being identified as the leading opponent in the voting slate. My own opinions about hard and soft science relate more to the difficulty of getting the college credits than they do to the value of the education in society. Earlier in my career of hard science I lived over seas in places where anyone who didn’t major in political science was considered to be inferior for a life time, both socially and professionally. So I got the additional education in the social sciences to be socially acceptable in those places as a part of the continuing education that was required for my profession. The career was a long one and the requirements continued every year, so I ended up with a lot of credits. With at least 10 semesters in each of the social sciences, and at least 10 semesters in each of the physical sciences, and at least another 10 semesters in each of the computational sciences, I can say with confidence that the social sciences in college are far less demanding of time and effort than the other scientific categories. It changes after college. In life outside of the class room, the human relations, group dynamics, social systems, economies, and governments get far more complicated than any interesting new mathematical proof, or the physical design of a factory. Sometimes it looks like the situations are deliberately made more complicated than necessary in a struggle for control of public policies and resources. Other times it looks like the people who are able to gain control are not able to manage their winnings effectively. I guess the reply to Andrea’s complaint is the social sciences deserve more attention than they are receiving in some parts of the Western World. Also colleges need to find a way to make the education in social sciences more educational.
    Hank
    Funny that the whole soft and hard argument has gotten so skewed.   I think it is only because the nature of the people you're discussing want to see themselves as Sneetches, but with 1 star - in my day no physical scientist (nor anyone else) considered life sciences as 'hard' yet when life scientists discuss hard they now include themselves and jeer at social science?

    It's always telling that when someone claims to be sooooo edgey they can't use a real name.  It means they want to say a lot of rubbish without any recourse - and it's why we don't allow pseudonyms here.   Very 2006 to hide behind anonymity but I am sure that person got an invitation to Scienceblogs over it because they live for that kind of non-science science - and they only recruit from blogger and corporations.

    Don't get me wrong, we jeer plenty here but we aren't snooty about it.   And social science, like climate science, would take less heat if they would police their own, like you do, and Mark Changizi, etc.   But you are allowed to be critical because you're inside it.   I made a quick video clip to demonstrate my point using that important science show, Family Guy.



    A lot of social scientists circle the wagons around any fluffy rubbish spewed out on Psychology Today blogs, so they do themselves no favors, but that doesn't mean it should be open season on all of the people doing legitimate work.    I think the community has done well in criticizing Hauser, for example, because that shows science works the way it should.    But carpet bombing all social sciences is just the sort of shrill hyperbole that got those guys (and wanna-be me-too sycophants like whatever that GMP kid is) the Heffernan quote they hated ... 
    Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.
    ... because it was accurate to the 64 million science readers who won't follow them because of it.

    But they have their market and it is no overlap with ours, nor SciAm's or other serious science sites, so it's fun to vent but I wouldn't lose any sleep over what some cultural/political bloggers think about social science.
    Mark Changizi
    As someone who began in the, ahem, "hard" sciences and moved into the, double-ahem, "soft" sciences, the "soft" sciences are in fact much harder. The techniques available in math are fine for simple things like billiard balls, but limp when put in front of most real biology.
    Gerhard Adam
    The techniques available in math are fine for simple things like billiard balls, but limp when put in front of most real biology.
    You raise a great point.  One concern I have regarding biology is that the more the focus shifts to details (or even reductionism), the greater the tendency to behave as if its like physics.  My own pet peeve relates to gene-centric views and kin selection, but it seems that there is this intense desire to make these sciences behave in a particular way rather than address them the way they are.

    The same thing occurs in economic theories, where there is this glut of mathematical models which expresses absolutely nothing about the fact that economics has existed long before there was anyone to study it.  Putting equations around it, doesn't make it any more real.

    I still think that too many scientists have "physics-envy" and are looking for a degree of precision in the world that may not exist.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Great article Andrea, is this the snowflake quote and link that you mentioned earlier? This one was written by GMP on August 30th at http://academic-jungle.blogspot.com/ Quote “It appears that a number of people dislike the categorization of STEM into hard and soft STEM and I understand their reasons. Additionally, if I were a guy, there is an obvious reason why I would never want to be known as "soft." But it seems people dislike being categorized altogether.” “I think we all like to think we are unique, snowflake-like researchers who totally escape all categorization. We bridge multiple fields, we do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, all in our own unique way. There is no chance that there is anyone quite as awesome, versatile, and interdisciplinary as we are, right? But, alas, who can ever really evaluate us in all our unique interdisciplinary glory?” End quote
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    There's a whole world out there that needs science's help...
    While I certainly agree with you regarding the elitism and scientific snobbery, this particular sentiment always makes me uncomfortable.
    Mundus vult decipi
    My own pet peeve relates to gene-centric views and kin selection, but it seems that there is this intense desire to make these sciences behave in a particular way rather than address them the way they are.

    Kin selection used to explain altruism? The Aus philosopher David Stove made a wonderful quip about this: if the selfish gene were so dominant then incest would be all the rage.

    The interesting trend in genetic studies is that they find one gene association and all hell breaks loose. Eureka! Then they keep going, another gene, and another gene. The approach is fundamentally flawed. Genes are response sets, not programs.

    There is something of an emerging new perspective on evolution, genetics, and molecular biology in general. The mathematicians Stewart, Kaufmann, and Goodwin have done some interesting work in this field. This perspective relies on a completely different conceptual structure to approach these issues. It is going to be very interesting to see how this pans out.

    "Hard and soft" simply reflects the limitations of our current conceptual strategies. Don't knock the social sciences because in a sense these represent a new frontier and mighty challenge to science. Dismissing these disciplines as nonsense is running away from the challenge.

    vongehr
    Wow - notice to all including myself - it is never good to post something too long and in a pissed off state. You know, I understand what you are saying, but there is also so much wrong. Many physicists know the real world and that is exactly why they decided at some point to hide in the lab! Hard and soft - well there is something about "exact sciences" being those with more reproducible (at least in principle) topic matter under investigation, so it is not all that arbitrarily defined by male chauvinism, which of course is always involved. So you are pissed about us physicists, for example, because we feel like an elite? And what do you hold against it? That you think your own side maybe is the better one because you are involved with rescuing Mexico? Apart from that this is at least exactly the same self-glorification, are you sure you are not just a pawn in the game of power that is called "the war on drugs"? If social scientists are letting themselves be used in order to help fighting the useless war instead of ending the prohibition on certain medicines, I can only smile and lay back in my lab chair feeling superior. At least I am aware about that my work is going to be used to kill some poor innocent bastards. Know yourself!
    rholley
    Only we can use that word!
    What word?  Is it my British ears, or my British vocabulary?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Hank
    The joke is about "nerf herder", a pejorative from "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back", which the cartoon is parodying ...



    ... but the cultural sensitivity the always politically incorrect "Family Guy" is puncturing is the belief among blacks that they can use a certain Romance language-derived slang word for dark that starts with N but no one else can.   It happened last week that a somewhat stupid radio host chose to dive into this topic; she's an idiot anyway but it made the point again.    

    So even though he and the dog use nerf herder to each other he punches her (another politically incorrect thing) when she calls him that.   Thus it is fine for social scientists to criticize other social scientists but when anonymous maybe-science-bloggers do it, they get punched.  Same goes for any family - you guys can make fun of me but I wouldn't laugh if some anonymous moron on Blogger did it.
    Thank you for this article, Andrea. I agree with some of what you say. I think you are right to criticise elitism.

    Elitism is false because it promotes orthodoxy: a resistance to change that stifles innovation and learning. Sadly, any group of people, including social scientists, can be hampered by elitism. It's that old playground fear; someone works hard to become part of an elite, but retains the fear that others may regard them as pompous, narrow-minded and ludicrous. This blind folly matters when an elite dominates communication, distorting access to new information and new perspectives, distorting critical scrutiny.

    At Science Online yesterday, about the divisions between scientists, journalists and the public, someone (Ed Yong?) pointed out that everyone is the public (he/she said it better). So please, bloggers of whatever, write to move out into the world, not to dispense wisdom from on high. Many readers don't appreciate these false partitions.

    rholley
    There are perhaps two main reasons why there is such a downer on sociology in Britain.  One is that in today’s environment it proves a much easier subject, both for pupils and teachers, to teach and examine.  (I wouldn’t like to do some of today’s physical or biological science exams.)
    For most ordinary people in Britain today sociology is a joke – “micky mouse” – subject. An easy option; a “doss subject”. Indeed this view has found many populist expressions, ranging from Bradbury’s The History Man to the recent British Telecom Television advertisment with Maureen Lipman, where, to his attentive Jewish grandmother, her grandson complains, over the phone, that the only GCSEs he has passed are Pottery and Sociology: Lipman, in her characteristically uninformed role replies: “You’ve got an ’ology’, you’re a scientist.”
    (taken from SOCIOLOGY AND THE SOVIET UNION: A LIBERTARIAN CRITIQUE)

    The other reason is that with this subject there is a perceived political bias in Academia.  This is not helped by the observation that on current affairs programmes the BBC (whose staff are recruited through advertisements in the Guardian (a leftish sort of newspaper) frequently trot out academics who appear to be sockpuppets for certain sections of the Labour Party.  (This has the downside that genuine, rather than ideologically motivated, criticism of Conservative policies thereby gets ignored.)

    Seriously, could one trust that any research on, say, gays in the military would be free of motivational bias, one way or the other?




    As for elitism, this has become a political buzz word.  It is too easily confused with snobbery. 

    This is how I first came in contact with the word.  As a boy, I used to read the Eagle.  Its cover story was Dan Dare, whose adventures were a sort of “RAF in Space” (while at the time it was actually the USA and the Союз Советских Социалистических Республик who were battling for supremacy).  Difficult jobs, such as fighting the forces of the Mekon, were given to Elite Squadron.   Hank would certainly approve – and yourself, Andrea?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    My background is geophysics but I spend a significant amount of time reading social science papers, particularly psychology and anything relating to the study of intelligence, which subject I find fascinating. Some researchers do great work. However, you have to really search for it. Most papers make me groan... Read a bit of the material out there and you will quickly verify the accusations of political agendas.

    Consider the words of Charles Leslie, advisory editor of Social Science and Medicine:

    "Most of the influential work in the social sciences is ideological, and most of our criticisms of each other are ideologically grounded. Non social scientists generally recognize the fact that social sciences are most ideological, and that they have produced in this century a very small amount of scientific knowledge compared to the great bulk of their publications. Our claim to being scientific is one of the main intellectual scandals of the academic world, though most of us live comfortably with our shame...By and large, we believe in, and our social science is meant to promote, pluralism and democracy."

    Or

    "Biological explanations of human social behaviour tend to be ideologically and politically reactive." -Caporael and Brewer, Journal of Social Issues (Publication of American Psychological Association)

    These comments were both attempts to persuade journals to actually refuse to publish work that suggested politically incorrect findings; specifically they were upset that the work of J. Philippe Rushton was not censored. (Look him up!) Nonetheless, all sciences started out this way, under the thumb of the prevailing political/religious doctrine. I have faith that in time the field will improve, and will probably also cease to be so easy.

    This is correct, some social scientists have an agenda-driven goals, and that blinds them to the flaws in their positions, a very good example is the issue of IQ, genes and the idea of a “general intelligence”, the so-called 'g'.

    The idea of 'g' is purely a myth. It is an artifact of how intelligence tests have been done, what they have been done for, and how scores on those tests make people feel, and how this has let people justify their feelings of superiority over people they are bigoted against and their continued maltreatment of the objects of their bigotry.

    This is a social phenomena, not a scientific one. Here is a link that points out very clearly, and shows quite conclusively why 'g' is a myth.

    http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/523.html

    A good place to start reading is with Peter Schonemann's work.

    A large part of my objection to the idea of the singularity is the flaws in the concept of 'g'. If there is no such thing as 'g', then you can't make it artificially.

    Those social scientists referenced above who "actually generate and test hypotheses, analyze data, and publish results" aren't really in the same category as the physicist... they are more akin to an architect where the tools of math and physics are but means to arbitrary ends. They may build something useful and even vital but that doesn't make the highly trained and very competent architect a "hard" scientist. Social scientist work in a world where ideology takes primacy and objective reality is subservient to subjective utility. It is used with certainty and righteousness by communist and anarchist alike.

    Soft sciences like economics and psychology ARE becoming harder but mostly despite themselves as they hold tight to the usual practice of taking an ideological position and then using or discarding the tools of science based on their utility in supporting that position. I do realize that this is also a tendency in the hard sciences as well- but it is a bias they try to suppress or at least hide while in the soft sciences it is the water that the fishes swim in.

    As long as the socialist/fascist or the libertarian can look at the same data and come to diametrically opposite conclusions it is hard to treat it like a science, let alone a hard science.

    Ok, so social science is /real/ science and all those 'scientists' are out there risking their lives. Let's us the scientific method to determine the value of /research/ done by social science:

    Q. Have the results led to conclusions that offer testable and provable theories (in the sense that future behaviour can be predicted based on present data) ?

    Q. Has the result of social science led to an improvement in it's field of study ? For example, advancements in study of physics lead to better physics. Advancement in study of chemistry leads to better chemistry. Does advancement in the field of social science lead to a better society ?

    I agree with your criticism of science elitism. Being an experimental physicist, I could say the same about the divide between experimentalist and theorist in my field. Guess who's ranked the highest in the hierarchy for doing the only real interesting science... I am pretty confident that between theorists there is also a strong hierarchy between who's a leader in the field and who is not. Hierarchy happens at every level in science... I just don't care personnally and tend to think about such attitude as being psychologically disfunctional.

    This dispute bears a striking resemblance to the Sorites Paradox.

    kerrjac
    For me, science has been defined by whether or not you use the scientific method- regardless of the discipline- biology, anthropology, psychology, yes, even social science.
    The scientific method is ultimately a tool, not an end in and of itself - recognizing that is the best way to use it. Judging research by 'whether or not it uses the scientific method' is like judging a mechanic by whether or not he uses a wrench - or by whether he uses the 'principles of mechanical theory'. No matter how skillful he is with the wrench, or with theory, the point is moot if in the end he can't complete the job. Likewise, no matter how rigorous the methodology, the point is moot if it fails to contribute much to anything.

    A study's contribution is ultimately subjective, regardless of whether you're in the 'hard' or 'soft' sciences.

    But over the long run, I think most people have a realistic sense of which fields have made important contributions to society and which haven't. 

    Of course, you can make the point that there are whole fields of science contributing to people's lives that they don't even know about. But that point is counter-intuitive, and would need further arguing. It's a safer assumption that most areas of science actively contributing to people's lives are those areas that - as whole fields - are better known, widely-acknowledged, less obscure. 

    That's not to say that there aren't emerging fields which will contribute in the near or distant future. But either way, you really can't see the scientific method as an end in and of itself. That's like praising a computer which doesn't do anything useful but has a lot of computing power. And unfortunately, many studies consist of just that - heavy on the computation, light on the application.
    Every scientific discipline has self-justifying reasons why all the others are less scientific or less important. They aren't competing for the "best science" award... they're just trying to feel important.

    Gerhard Adam
    It's a safer assumption that most areas of science actively contributing
    to people's lives are those areas that - as whole fields - are better
    known, widely-acknowledged, less obscure.

    When did it become a requirement of science that it contribute to people's lives?  Science is about acquiring knowledge and using the scientific method to test and scrutinize what is gained to determine whether it is reasonable enough to stand up to repetition and prediction.

    Many of those principles may be used by others to derive applications that may be practical, but technology is not science. 

    My concern in all of this, is that science is losing its way from the acquisition of knowledge to only focusing on those things that "solve problems".  However, when science focuses only on applications, it loses its reason for existing.  Solving problems extends far beyond the realm of science and becomes integrated into our political process as well as society.  This is one reason why so many "scientific" issues have become politicized, because while the science may be sound, its application towards social objectives is not. 

    Just as the controversies around global climate change tend to veer from the science to the agendas of "what to do about it".  However, in truth, we don't know enough about the science to know how to solve such a problem.  Even less do we understand all the social systems that are involved and what the ramifications of tinkering with those would be.  In the end, to even imagine that there would be a worldwide cooperative effort to solve such a "problem" seems extremely naive.

    Even one of the most talked about achievements of modern medical science/technology (the eradication of smallpox) was hardly a scientific endeavor as much as it was a great deal of political strong-arming and forcing of agendas.  This is not the vision of science that I support and I find it disappointing that so many scientists have taken it upon themselves to think that because they are engaged in a scientific discipline and employ the scientific method, that somehow they've gained an inside track to making the decisions for the rest of us.

    Unfortunately, science has no conscience.  It will provide the knowledge to destroy us just as readily as it will provide the knowledge to "save" us.  Therefore the greatest danger we face from science, is not in the acquisition of knowledge, but in believing that we are prepared to use it while we are still novices.


    Mundus vult decipi
    kerrjac
    When did it become a requirement of science that it contribute to people's lives?  Science is about acquiring knowledge and using the scientific method to test and scrutinize what is gained to determine whether it is reasonable enough to stand up to repetition and prediction.


    Even in the more theoretical realm, most people understand that giants like Newton, Einstein, and Darwin contributed invaluably to society. 

    Science or knowledge, without application, is like a computer without a keyboard or monitor. I could reliably count the number of leaves in my front yard and use it to predict the number of leaves in my neighbor's. Furthermore, you could confirm my prediction to a high degree of accuracy, and you could replicate my methods exactly. But so what?

    Too often the 'so what' gets lost in shuffle, but this is the most important aspect of science. It's particularly important in this day of age, as the sheer amount of raw knowledge, data, and information continues to increase. Simply sifting through a bunch of raw data, manipulating it, churning out some new raw data out, and citing other people who did likewise, is useless, and it just adds to the mess. 
    My concern in all of this, is that science is losing its way from the acquisition of knowledge to only focusing on those things that "solve problems". 
    Call it what you will - a contribution, a research aim, a solution to a problem, value, a purpose, the so-what - there must be a greater to end to science than simply more science. You might disagree with what that goal is, or is becoming, but my point is that the goal has to reach beyond mere 'conducting science and acquiring knowledge'.
    Gerhard Adam
    Science or knowledge, without application, is like a computer without a keyboard or monitor.
    Not at all.  There might be a whole range of knowledge that can be acquired, that might later be applicable.  I'm not suggesting that science can never be applied, but to view it from the perspective of application sets the wrong tone. 

    There is far too much knowledge that we're missing precisely because it has no purpose at this point.  By concentrating solely on what's "useful", we deprive ourselves of building the necessary platform against which future knowledge can be applied.

    Newton' didn't develop his laws of motion to solve the problem of going to the moon.  Darwin didn't develop the theory of natural selection to solve the problems of genetic engineering.  Instead, all of these ideas and theories were developed because of basic curiosity and the desire simply to understand how the world works.  It's only by seeking knowledge without an objective that we can gather enough of it to determine whether it has application later.

    In many instances, we don't even know what we don't know, so the risk is that we learn just enough to make ourselves dangerous never realizing that our knowledge is incomplete in some critical manner.
    It's particularly important in this day of age, as the sheer amount of raw knowledge, data, and information continues to increase. Simply sifting through a bunch of raw data, manipulating it, churning out some new raw data out, and citing other people who did likewise, is useless, and it just adds to the mess.
    Once again, I think you're describing a different problem here.  This is precisely what I was getting at, where we get infatuated with our ability to collect data and then we think we can simply exert some brute force effort to find application. 

    The simple reality is that there are far more scientists proclaiming "breakthroughs" than there are actually achieving them. 
    I could reliably count the number of leaves in my front yard and use it to predict the number of leaves in my neighbor's. Furthermore, you could confirm my prediction to a high degree of accuracy, and you could replicate my methods exactly. But so what?
    Not true.  The point is that this is precisely where breakthroughs come from.  If you could perform this task, then perhaps someone that's thinking of a completely different problem could use your technique to solve a problem.  However, if you already judge your contribution as trivial and never pursue it, then you deny the opportunity for the development of a solution.

    The simple reality is that many solutions are derived from knowledge acquired for completely different reasons.  So, if we attempt to pursue specific solutions we will always miss critical pieces of information because we can't see how it might be useful.  Of course, if we could make such an assessment ahead of time then we wouldn't be ignorant.

    Mundus vult decipi
    In this current world state of political affairs & terrorism world wide, Soft Science is about keeping your home country safe with knowledge and understanding so that Hard Science can stand with Broad Shoulders. Open Boarders & Ground Zero Mosque need to be understood from a scientific perspective.

    The 'soft'/'hard' distinction is NOT a value judgment or a reflection of the worth of different sciences (NOR a case of 'elitism'); it is merely an acknowledgment that some science can be carried out much more rigorously/empirically than other sciences, where the complexity is far greater and variables less definable. Why is this even worthy of debate? Does anyone seriously believe that all sciences are exactly equal in their application of scientific methods?

    Hank
    No issue at all (for me) distinguishing between hard and soft sciences - my distinction would be more traditional than anyone here (maybe I am just older) and so exclude a lot that scientists on here might want included.   I also have no issue with elitism since, as I have noted many times before (and in whole articles) and Robert Olley noted here as well, society has no issue at all with the concept of elite athletes and faux-modesty is unnecessarily confusing to people who just want to know which people are good.  I know who the best sprinter is and knowing who the best scientists are is not that hard either.

    But the approach in those other places is what she was critiquing - she has been hard on plenty of social sciences studies so it wasn't just circling the wagons - because in those places it was just another attempt to tee off on someone outside their ridiculously untalented clique, and a bunch of anonymous bloggers doing it to boot.  Anonymous people have no ability to be elite.
    vongehr
    "I know ... and knowing ... is not that hard either."
    Why does this always come together with a most naive and often traditional point of view?

    How much is the stance on elitism dependent on identification or at least the wish to belong?

    Sorry, I feel mean today.
    rholley
    Why does this always come together with a most naive and often traditional point of view?
    Is there a political undercurrent beneath the surface of this question?
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    What is important about science is not whether it is easy or hard, but whether it is correct.

    That is what is being lost in these arguments. Calling science “hard” or “soft” is simply a way to denigrate science of certain types so that scientists working in those disciplines can't move up the scientist social hierarchy.

    Science is a tool for finding out correct stuff. It is not a tool to move up a social hierarchy. Trying to move up a social hierarchy is the default mode of human behavior. It is extremely difficult for humans to put that social-hierarchy-striving behind and just do stuff because it is “correct” and not because it has the “purpose” of moving them up the social hierarchy.

    Hank, I understand what you are saying about “elites”, and agree with some of it. I have the Arthur Schopenhauer quote on my blog;

    “With people of limited ability modesty is merely honesty. But with those who possess great talent it is hypocrisy.”

    In reality there are no “elite” scientists. There are correct scientists and there are incorrect scientists. Figuring out which is which is what is important, and what the scientific method is used for. When people forget that and try to use the “scientific method” as a magic tool wielded by “elites”, they are doing what Feynman called “Cargo Cult Science”. Going through the motions without the intellectual integrity to reconsider your basic assumptions.

    “Elite” is a human social hierarchy term, not a scientific term. Any scientist can be wrong, even the most elitist of the elite. Any person can be correct, even the village idiot. Trying to figure out if someone is correct based on their position in a social hierarchy is a social activity not a scientific activity. To do science you have to work with data. To do social stuff you work with people.

    Fad-driven science is science driven by a desire to rise to the top of the scientist-social-hierarchy. That is the dominant mode of science and science funding these days. The fetish about genes is a good example. How many billions have been spent on trying to find genes for complex genetic disorders? How many genes for complex genetic disorders have been found? Essentially none. Why? Because the fundamental premise of complex genetic disorders is wrong but in the gene-fad driven science that fundamental premise can't be challenged. It is actually worse than that, the people doing the gene-fad research can't even conceive that their fundamental premise might be wrong. They are constricted to think inside the genes → diseases paradigm even when the gene data they are collecting doesn't indicate that is what is happening. They need a new paradigm but are unable to think outside their existing one. They are unable to even conceive that there is something outside their existing paradigm.

    I think this is a direct consequence of the fad-driven funding and publication of science for social advancement of scientists in the scientist-social-hierarchy. To get the funding and the publications, you have to project the impression that you are correct and that those who follow you will be able to bask in your radiance and achieve scientist-social-karma by being your follower. If you show any doubt in your approach, your followers will abandon you. The person showing the least doubt gets the funding, not the person who is the most realistic. The naïve individual with a nonsensical “hypothesis” can get funded where the expert who knows the field and knows that no hypothesis fits the known data can't.

    The funding agencies don't want scientists to do “science”, they want scientific elites to wield the magic talisman of science to achieve the agency goals, and will supply funding to the most persuasive promises of doing so.

    The leaders of the Cargo Cults didn't bring any cargo to their followers, but as the leaders of those cult they had great social status for themselves. Just like the tailors who made the Emperor's new clothes.

    Craig Dillon
    Hard Science and Soft Science. Before we can discuss anything, we have to define our terms. By Hard Science, to me that means any science which uses, or can use, controlled experimentation. Soft Science then means any science or field of study where experimentaton CANNOT be used. So, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, and others like them would definitely be hard sciences. Hence, the references to people in lab coats. Others like sociology and political science would be considered soft. However, others which many may not think of as "soft" would also be included. Geology and Paleotology, for instance, must be considered soft sciences since one cannot perform experiments on Ceratopsians, or on Volcanoes. The only difference between the observations and data gathering of a geologist and a sociologist is the nature of the subjects being observed. When elitism occurs, which it will, I suggest being charitable to the "elitist", for the "elitist" is merely being egocentric and showing his/her ignorance of other fields of study. So, just forgive them for they know not what they do.