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Oh yeah this needs a title

September 16, 2008

This morning found Erik (hi dear!) and I once again debating, covering one of our favorite topics, the relationship between soft and hard sciences. As I see it, he has the very normal bias of a physical scientist towards all other scientific subjects. After a long debate I can wear him down, but like so many other people he’s prone to statements like “They just look at a shard of pottery and say, ‘this is this old’, and then someone comes along and carbon dates it and proves otherwise.” Another one, from other people, which I admit to agreeing with and then regretting, is “All biologists are stupid.” I’ve actually heard it said that people from other sciences don’t understand/correctly use the scientific method, or that other subjects are easier. Actually, to be accurate to what I’ve heard, the physical scientist will say other subjects are easy, and then upon getting called out on that will amend it to “easier”. Of course, it’s not just physical scientists who are guilty of this; I just don’t seem many people from other subjects anymore. Biologists mock social sciences and social scientists mock the humanities. I’ll focus on the physical sciences, though, because that is my peer group and the people I see the most now.
Seriously, when did we get crowned as the geniuses of the universe? Is there a line written on my degree in invisible ink that says I’m smarter and more scientific than everyone else? Did I miss the secret club meeting that tells me how stupid the rest of the world is?
I will admit, soft sciences do get a bad rap. We all take anthro as a blow off gen ed, and everyone thought freshmen bio in high school was a bit of a joke. No one takes physics or chemistry for shits and giggles, right? (Haha actually Alica and Ross do, but they’re trading disciplines.) I’d ask all former squaders to think back, though, to freshmen year. Remember that gen ed chemistry class KK took? How the closest to actually chemistry she had to do was print off a picture of a molecular structure. That would be the chemistry equivalent to anthro 101, methinks.
The real accusation I hear leveled against non-physical sciences (from now on called “soft sciences” and abbreviated SS, sorry bio people) is that they’re not scientific. That, because of the lack of advanced calculus, it’s somehow inferior, and because some evidence is harder to quantify that it’s more changeable. Now, please tell me, how constant has physics been? A hundred years ago we were just starting to figure out relativity and quantum mechanics. Thermo was only recently settled, and the big bang hadn’t even been thought up yet. I won’t even go to where chemistry was a hundred year ago; I think most chemists will agree that we knew pretty little back then.
Yeah, a hundred years ago anthropologists were using biased experiments shoving sand into skulls to advance theories about racial superiorities, but they’ve gotten past that. The dirty secrets of chemistry physics get swept under the rug well, but every now and again I’ll hear a prof admit that so and so famous scientist once had this crackpot pet theory he published and was accepted, but is now refuted completely. We all know, across all disciplines, to read older papers with a more skeptical mind. You read the methodology section more carefully, and scour the internet for more recent papers which support or discredit the theory put forth.
As for how scientific SS is today, consider this. In a recent paper (Katie sent me) on something to do with alligators, the alligator skull was modeled with 2400 elements, and this was listed as as a “relatively course model”. (Metzger, K.A., “Comparison of Beam Theory and Finite-Element Analysis With In Vivo Bone Strain Data From the Alligator Cranium”, The Anatomical Record Part A, 283A, 331-3348, 2005.)
What’s my point, you ask? *breaks out in song* Give a little respect (just a little bit) *done now*
*laughs* Yes I am absurd. And I did mentally decide that’d be the conclusion before I’d thought up half the journal entry.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 17, 2008 12:41 am

    The thing is, nothing in any of the sciences can be proven without data. And good data means numbers. Well all use quantitative data. And for those fringe sciences that do not (cultural anthro, sociology, etc…), there are either cases where they DO break things down into quantitative data, or they still use the scientific method. Things get “fuzzy” on the fringes, because it is hard to quantify human opinions – but they still do statistics just like the rest of us have to.
    Basically…it is hard to cheat the system. If you are publishing as a scientist, peer review won’t let you publish something that isn’t scientific. Sure, sometimes you can get away with it – we’ve all read papers that violate methods and should never have seen the light of day. But when it comes down to it, the process of peer review keeps science MOSTLY in check. And every discipline has to go through that process.
    We all work with quantitative data. And while not everyone needs to master calculus to draw conclusions from their data, that does not mean their data is worth less, or is somehow not scientific. Did we not all run science experiments for elementary school science fairs? We each used a scientific method then…and I highly doubt calculus ever entered the picture.
    I think it really boils down to understanding what “intelligent” means.
    The ability to understand high-level math is one of the more rare abilities given to humans. As such, since many of us cannot comprehend calculus when taken to crazy levels, this is seen as less intelligent. That is just our cultural definition of intelligence. Intelligence in mathematics is just a fancy name for one type of a talent.
    Not everyone can be a concert pianist. Not everyone can be an Olympic gold medalist. Not everyone can write the Great American Novel. And not everyone can understand upper-level mathematics or physics.
    Each of those things takes both talent and hard work. I think everyone has something that they worked hard for in their life, but never truly succeeded in because they just didn’t have the talent underlying it.
    Anyway, what I am saying is that math is one of the rarer talents, so people who are good at it are given special descriptors: intelligent, smart, geeky…etc. =)
    Chances are, if you have that “intelligent” math talent, you go far in mathematics fields. But let’s drop you in a concert hall and see how well you can perform a concerto. Or, how about we drop you in Africa and see how well you master a native tongue in six months and manage to run a full-fledged experiment on a subject no one around is willing to give you any straight answers about.
    Just different skill sets. If you are in love with the term “intelligent” in its mathematical sense, then maybe yes, you could say people who don’t use math as frequently are not exercising “intelligence” as often as you.
    Personally, I prefer the word “clever”. That implies creativity as well as smarts. Anyone working towards a PhD HAS to be clever, or they will not succeed.
    In conclusion: I can vouch for the correct usage of the scientific method in my field (Physical Anthropology). And in Biology, which I have also concentrated in. I can also vouch for our use of quantitative data. And goodness, we even have EQUATIONS, too. But let me tell you, the hardest parts of my field…the parts where I have to exercise my brain the most…are not in crunching numbers and playing with equations. The hard parts are in the interpretation of the analysis of data. That is where you need to be clever. And while I can’t do physics as well as I might like, I doubt many physicists could pull nearly as much information out of a handful of fossils as I can.
    /super long reply

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