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Culture wars: hard vs. soft sciences

For a few decades, we could have observed symptoms of the culture wars between the scientifically minded scholars and people in general who think that their task is to search for the truth using the hard, scientific methods on one side - and humanity oriented academics and social scientists who think that the task for the Academia is to search for the "truth" by the easy, social methods, by consensus, and the main criterion of success and truth is whether they look nice according to other soft people.

Recently, the soft side has been vigorously attacking the hard side and the hard side does not seem to be defending itself anymore. The extremely soft segments forced Lawrence Summers, an eminent economist and an extraordinary university leader, to resign. There are many episodes behind the Summers controversy. However, the main lasting consequence of this story for the big picture is clear: the resignation was a significant victory of the soft side in the culture wars.




The adjectives "hard" and "soft" are not separated sharply. There are many levels and flavors of "hardness" and "softness". However, there are many fields that can be classified almost unequivocally as "very soft" or "extremely soft" fields. They include sociology, women's studies, African American studies, literary criticism (plus journalism), and several others. On the other hand, some social sciences - especially economy and partly political science - are on the harder end of the social sciences. Natural sciences tend to be "hard". Physics, engineering, and much of chemistry are among the "clearly hard" fields. On the other end, Earth and planetary sciences and parts of life sciences are softer. Whenever I talk about hard or soft fields below, I mean the idealized hard and idealized soft fields or the hard and soft essence of all fields. My conclusions are certainly not meant as universal statements about every individual member of a large group of departments but as a description of certain tendencies that are dominating in one group of fields or another. Also, my goal is not to trash social sciences and humanities in general whose existence makes the society richer in so many respects. There are many people in these fields I deeply respect. Instead, I only criticize the features of soft sciences that are important for the culture wars.

What are the differences in the two groups' understanding of the truth?

Hard sciences attempt to understand (and use, in the case of applied sciences) the phenomena in the real world. To do so, they must always consider different hypotheses that are conceivable a priori and choose among them by a careful evaluation of the observational data, artificially prepared experiments, and a sufficiently refined theoretical reasoning. In these considerations, it never matters who is proposing a particular scientific work. It doesn't matter what is her or his race, nationality, profession, or sex. It doesn't matter what is his or her political power and whether various groups of people like her or him or not - and whether they like her face, clothes, or vocabulary.

Soft sciences make students memorize a certain amount of material and insights that are not related with each other, and if they are, the relations are comprehensible to most ordinary people. This lack of unifying structure is often compensated by artificially invented principles which usually means a political ideology. The right ideology is chosen according to the ability of their proponents to convince others, according to their face, vocabulary, friends, political allies, and according to the people whom they eat with and sleep with. What matters is whether you belong to a group that is being liked by others or viewed as a politically correct group. Depending on the mood in the society, being a Jew or a woman can be a tremendous advantage or a tremendous disadvantage. Social sciences sensitively depend on the political twists in the society and they magnify their effects which is why they are also controlled by groupthink most of the time.

It should not be surprising that a major part of the soft sciences criticized in this text are sciences that are currently blended with far left-wing political activism.

The arguments in the idealized soft sciences have no material substance, especially not substance that requires scholars to think intensely for extended periods of time. Instead, these arguments are primarily composed of philosophical preconceptions that make their proponents "feel good" and that make them look nice in the eyes of a sufficiently powerful segment of the society. Much like in the case of stars of porn industry, the good soft scientists are chosen by those who are less experienced experts because there exists no independent method that experts would have to learn before they become able to evaluate the ideas. If such a method existed, the field could be studied by hard scientists, too. In other words, the most successful representatives of soft sciences are the most successful spokespersons of the most widely held ideas in the society. In most cases, the most widely held ideas are myths.

As suggested above, the education in the idealized hard sciences is hard and the education in the idealized soft sciences is easy in comparison. The grading and other procedures are relatively objective in hard sciences and relatively subjective in the soft sciences. While the various levels of education in very hard sciences make these fields learnable for subsets of the population whose size decreases dramatically at each new level, the whole education in soft sciences is essentially open to a significant fraction of the population. In some sense, the required concepts do not go qualitatively beyond the elementary school. The emphasis is on relatively simple manipulation with language, letters, words, and notions whose meaning is almost always defined verbally, in terms of other words.

Equivalently, hard sciences focus on the content while the focus of soft sciences is on the form: they are more superficial. A different choice of a word or terminology is something that would never affect conclusions that hard scientists are ultimately interested in. On the other hand, subtle changes of words are very profound for soft scientists. Hard scientists are interested in a bird's physiology; soft scientists are interested how the bird is called in different languages.

Typical hard scientists' IQ is by 15-30 points higher than the typical soft scientists' IQ. Soft warriors in the culture wars ideally don't like any hard data - and this hard data is no exception - and they prefer to invent constructs that justify their denial of the hard data.

Hard scientists realize that the world follows certain laws of Nature, and the society is no exception except that these systems are so complex that the fundamental laws sometimes cease to be useful for the analysis or management of these complex systems. Soft scientists don't realize (or don't "accept") that the world follows natural laws. The idealized soft scientists think that the society or a word (logo) was primary and natural laws are social constructs, much like everything else. In other words, most idealized soft scientists deny any objective reality. They think that all the world follows the rules of their "science" - everything is determined by politics - and they are trying to impose this highly misleading philosophy upon the whole Academia and beyond.

Nowadays, most journalists, including the self-described science journalists, seem to fit squarely in the soft realm. They were trained to be able to work with the words and to respect the rules of grammar. They were trained to combine the words in ways that superficially look fair. They never want to look inside ideas or debates. Consequently, they can only choose the right voices according to their feelings or their colleagues' feelings. They give room to people whom they eat with, whom they sleep with, whose smile they like, and whom they feel compassion for. The more intellectually complex a given topic is, the lower value the average result of the soft journalists' work inevitably has. They never want to comprehend some principles revealed by science to the point that they could check the principles themselves. The most complex principles that the soft journalists wish to learn are childish conspiratory theories - such as the idea that the evil oil industry is going to burn the planet by 2016. They don't want to be better, and as indicated above, most of them are not able to do better. Once they learn some oversimplified childish principles, it is very difficult for them to unlearn them.

If soft scientists and hard scientists look for an answer or if they debate, the hard scientists want to look at the question under consideration carefully enough so that the critical issue can be localized and the answer can be determined by objective methods. The idealized soft sciences prefer to follow their dogmas, pre-determined opinions, and intuition from the past, or they tend to think about the political consequences of a particular answer for the future. They rarely look at the results of the present experiments and they can rarely admit that the correct answer to a question is one that they don't like. Most of the important things they have learned were taught at the basic school, and the rest of their intellectual life is just about collecting evidence and (mis)interpretations of the new facts that allow them to believe that their opinions crystallized after the elementary school were correct.

Needless to say, the approach of hard sciences is the opposite one. Their goal is to make progress, which means to make the future knowledge higher than the past knowledge, and the inevitable condition for such a development is to get something positive from the present - from present calculations, considerations, experiments, or observations.

Hard sciences and soft sciences evaluate the importance of principles and ideas very differently, especially in the context of teaching. In hard sciences, it is obvious that students must learn how to think scientifically, and they must learn the basic theories of their fields whose ramified and extended versions lie at the core of more advanced or more specialized subfields. In this sense, hard sciences respect a certain hierarchical structure of knowledge. It's because there are many logical relations between different insights. The soft sciences lack these sharp relationships in most cases which spoils the hierarchical nature of their tree of knowledge. Consequently, the teachers in extremely soft sciences often want to avoid teaching of basic skeletons of knowledge, and they prefer randomly chosen personal and ideological (mis)interpretations of very special and largely inconsequential questions in their fields.

The (post)modern very soft scientists prefer to replace encyclopedic knowledge where individual entries are supported by evidence and by each other and independently verified by a continuous random flow of soft plasma where no idea should be checked separately from others. Every time a hard scientist wants to locate the hard core of a question and look at it carefully, the soft scientist tries to hide the core in an artificially produced jelly that can't really be grasped by hands or by brains. Whenever a hard scientist thinks that we have just found the hard core and we are about to learn something, the soft scientists switch to a different topic or general cliches.

This difference is one of the examples that the very soft reasoning also exists in the hard scientific fields. In climate science, we face a lot of scientifically illiterate journalists who are excited if they are able to understand an idea such as the theory of the evil oil industry that is going to burn the Earth by 2016. But even many people paid as scientists are very soft. When people in many groups agree that the climate reconstructions are perhaps the single most well-defined tool to see whether the human influence on the climate exceeds the natural factors and whether it is unprecedented, they just don't want to look at the corresponding scientific work carefully enough. They don't care whether it's correct or wrong - and they openly tell you so - because what they're really building upon is not hard science. They are building on pillars of soft science such as the social consensus, the popular support for widely held myths.

Very similar comments apply to the critics of theoretical physics. Whenever any particular question is being discussed - such as the question whether the coefficient 1/4 in the black hole entropy could be something else such as "ln(3)", they just don't want to look at the particular papers in detail. Many of them despise all serious papers. The epithet "not even wrong" is nothing else than a clear expression of hatred against hard scientific thinking in general. People who follow the "not even wrong" reasoning don't ever want to read or write any serious paper. They have already decided that about the truth without looking at a single technical question carefully. They have decided by the methods of very soft sciences. Various Peters Woits are extremely soft intellectual jellies - or jelly fish, if you wish - that you never want to touch because nothing useful can ever come out of it. The contrast between people like Peter Woit and hard sciences could not be sharper. In hard science, it is the whole idea to look for the most natural theories that are compatible with the real data - theories that are "not yet wrong". Hard sciences can never find theories (except for the ultimate and complete TOE) that are "forever correct". The only thing that hard sciences can find is a theory that is still working fine, a theory that is "not yet wrong". The fact that the jelly-fish critics of science try to humiliate this important principle by their epithets such as "not even wrong" proves that they have not understood what science is all about.

The softer and more intellectually rotten the popular discourse about a class of questions becomes, the less quantitative concepts you can see in it, the more complicated speech code and set of tabboos you face, the more political arguments you encounter, the more frequently you hear that there exist arguments that no one actually knows (classical emperor's new clothes), and the more often you can hear ad hominem arguments that someone is "not nice" - because being nice is nothing else than being another supersoft jelly-fish with entirely unscientific and "socially acceptable" opinions about everything that the other jellies want to produce from the whole humankind.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Unless you invent an efficient way to decompose the jelly into usable carbon and hydrogen atoms that could be used to construct something more valuable. It's not an easy task because the jelly of lousy science journalists, critics, and soft academics is set to increase exponentially.

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reader Atlanin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

reader Lumo said...

This posting was posted by atlanin and reposted because the URLs were too long and destroyed the layout, sending the whole sidebar to the bottom.

Dear Luboš,

Concerning link in the 11th paragraph of "Culture wars: hard vs. soft sciences" "11-30 points" which links to a Sunday, March 12, 2006 blog entry: "IQ in different fields"

re: In "IQ in different fields" you made the following statement: "The only exception was medicine that I expected to appear in the upper half ( of the list of Mean IQs )." Average IQ was 114 for medicine fourth from the bottom only Communication, Education and Public administration were lower.

I am a physician and entered medical school ( Ivy League ) in the early 1960s. At the time I took the GREs ( score 960 in Biology out of 970 top score and 800 verbal, and 800 math ). The stellar GREs did not help me get into Medical school because I already had been accepted before taking the GREs during my 2nd semester of my last year of college. There was no GRE exam for Medicine then or now to my knowledge. Prospective medical students in the 60s took the Medical Aptitude Test some time before applying to medical school and that still is being done as far as I know. The Medical Aptitude Test has been dumbed done since I took it as have the SAT exams. The Medical Aptitude Test was a darn hard test at that time. During my time in medical school ( 1960s ) and the year after I graduated, there were three tests given nationally to medical students ( and I suspect currently ): 1) at the end of the second year, a basic science exam, 2) at the end of the fourth year, a clinical science exam, and 3) at the end of one's Internship ( or equivalent 1st year residency ), an applied clinical science exam. No exact grades were reported back to the student, only one's percentile rank which made a great difference later in getting into a top residency program and was used to get a medical license to practice medicine in most States of the USA.

My hunch is that the Medicine GRE must be in reference to Nursing, Audiology and possibly Physical Therapy not true MD students.

Check out this URL http://members.sha w.ca/delajara/GREIQ.html .

Here is Rodrigo de la Jara's information on "How to estimate your IQ based on your GRE or SAT scores." Linked on that page is http://members.shaw.ca/delajara/Oc cupations.html "Modern IQ ranges for various occupations." The MDs were the brightest on average of occupations but Natural Science included physical, life and math. There is much to mine relating to IQ on de la Jara's site.

Now another topic. A nephew of mine who has been followed by the John's Hopkins High IQ study as he grew up, did not get into Harvard's on coming Freshman class; he is on the waiting list but will never attend if eventually accepted. He will attend Colgate University and it will be Harvard's loss IMHO. His SATs were 800 verbal, 800 math, and A+ Essay. He knows of two females and two blacks with much lower SATs who were accepted to Harvard and who have no where near his Academic and Extracurricular achievements such as being High School Newspaper Editor his Junior year--it was a competitive position not restricted to Seniors. This perceived insult by Harvard will bother him for years because of its injustice. I urge you to read the following essay: Down, Down, Down--Reflections On The Boy Crisis http://fredoneve rything.net/FOE_Frame_Column.htm .

Cheers,

Atlantin
2:20 AM

... Please connect the URLs - omit spaces - if you use them. And please avoid superlong sequences of characters without spaces in slow comments.


reader Assistant Village Idiot said...

The psychosphere has been posting on this recently. Neo-neocon did a whole series on it last fall. You can click through from my own wite to others.

(Remove spaces to work link)

http://assistantvillageidiot.blogsp ot.com/2006/07/types-of-answers- in-education-part-two.html