SCIENCE OR NOT - 1 November 2014
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A while ago I read an article by a scientist in USATODAY. His opinion piece promoted the idea in an environment of fiscal austerity budgets should be prioritized to fund the "hard" sciences before the soft ones. The hard sciences being chemistry and physics and the like that are based on the physical world. The soft sciences are less based on the physical world and include sociology, anthropology, and even economics. Under some conditions I might even throw in there biology. The point this person's was making was the value of hard sciences to us as a society was much more valuable than the soft ones. As a result, it only made sense to fund the hard sciences before the soft. According to the opinion piece, the benefit to society would be better by funding hard than the soft sciences. I think this is a relatively parochial stance to have. Certainly have such a stance can lead to fewer discoveries and advances in the soft sciences. The writer opined hard sciences were based on solid indisputable solid evidence while the soft sciences could not say the same. I say, "ya, sure. but that's not always so true."
I guess the problem I have with these kind of stances is it promotes the idea that one type of science is more connected to the "truth" than the other. I think this is a very narrow point of view.
I am absolutely confident there are plenty of examples of research in the soft sciences being debunked for their bad scientific conclusions. I agree this happens. I might even agree this can happen with greater regularity than with the hard sciences. But, if the methodology is scientifically solid and the research has general agreement among peers, the validity of the results should not matter whether they're based on a hard or a soft science. My thought here is the underlying process is what creates the credibility. In other words, if one believes in the scientific method then one has to respect the results regardless of the domain in which the research was conducted. Therefore, if the process is right then the results should carry credibility whether they’re based on physical evidence or not.
This is what I find most confusing about this argument; hard sciences are supposedly based on clear physical evidence that can't be refuted. But, they can. In the past, research in physics that didn’t follow accepted methodology yielded suspected results. Conversely, collect data in a social science in a disciplined, methodical, and accepted way, you can have results that have real relevance and impact.
There was a time when scientists thought the cosmos were filled with a material, an ether, through which light was transmitted in waves. This was eventually turned on its head with Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Another example is people used to believe the universe was static meaning the galaxies' positions between each other were constant. This theory was disposed in the early 20th century allowing the thought today the universe is constantly expanding.
While it’s hard to believe any competent scientist being fooled by evidence and developing theories that eventually would be called laughable, that is exactly what we should be prepared for. That is not the same thing as saying everything at all times should be under suspicion. I am not suggesting that.. I am saying if your position is hard science is more connected to the truth than soft sciences, I believe you will eventually be disappointed with something you took for granted. In fact, I believe this disappointment is a surety.
Let’s talk about the soft sciences. In fact, it wasn’t very long ago when physics was a soft sciences. Only when our understanding of the physical relationships and robust enough mathematical techniques did physics make the jump. Biology even today can be considered a soft science. Yet, we gain direct benefit from discoveries made in biology every single day. Soft sciences have value.
I very much believe there is much to learn as humans and there is much we don't know. I also believe there are many examples in our history where supposed immutable knowledge was turned on its head through one discovery or another. My thought here is that establishing some sort of hierarchy of merit among the sciences will tend to disrupt our ability to make discoveries or to attack those sacred cows we take for granted or shouldn't have the credibility in which they enjoy.
(BTW, I am aware some folks will take my words to try to diminish good solid science whatever it might be. Also, I'm aware good science and good results will be able to suffer through such scrutiny.)
I believe we must be flexible enough to see new possibility when it presents itself. And, be humble enough to know we do not have answers for everything. In the end, our real challenge is having enough judgement to know when someone is selling you a bill of goods. That is definitely a difficult thing to do. Interestingly, it is much easier to simply build a hierarchy among the sciences and assume the physics and chemistry fields of research are always better and more important to us. Unfortunately, what is easier is not always better. The best way is all research must stand on their own merits. Then, by reviewing and assessing those merits can you understand what deserve more funding and what does not.
(1 Nov 14 - Edited some grammar mistakes)