There are no soft sciences

I can vividly remember a rather passionate discussion with someone about ecology, particularly population ecology and conservation biology. The discussion (perhaps an argument, by that point, but still good-natured) culminated in his asserting that ecology is a “soft” science. I wasn’t sure what to say to that at the time, which may be why I feel compelled to write this post.

Labelling a science as “soft” is presumably meant to show that the conclusions drawn in that field are somehow less rigorous, less quantitative, less “sciencey” than in the “hard” sciences. This is more than a little silly, for one reason: there is only one scientific method. Those who follow the scientific method or doing science, regardless of their field. As long as the results obtained are supported empirically, there’s no recourse for labelling some “soft” or some others “hard.”

However, in the spirit of ragging on other people’s disciplines (I’m currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in ecology and evolution), I intend to make the case that ecology is actually a harder science than the traditional “hard” sciences, i.e. physics and chemistry. I will do so based on the predictions yielded by ecology vs. the “hard” sciences, the limitations to those predictions, and the number of assumptions needed to generate them.

First,

  • Predictions.  General relativity and quantum mechanics both yield predictions that have been confirmed to an astounding degree of accuracy.  By contrast, population growth models seem laughably inaccurate, especially considering that the predictions are generally only reliable for a few generations.

But,

  • Limitations.  Newton’s theory of gravity was remarkably accurate for two bodies, but the calculations became cumbersome for three or more.  The same is true of predictions of the behavior of particles under quantum mechanics.  Ecological models, however, yield serviceably accurate predictions for any population, large or small, and for groups of populations.

As well as,

  • Assumptions.  All the sciences require some assumptions, because no science offers a complete description of the universe (yet.)  Therfore, quantum mechanics has generall proceeded on the assumption that spacetime is locally flat, general relativity has had to assume that spacetime is generally flat, and so on.  (I hope someone will correct me if I’m grossly misrepresenting anything.)  Population models, by the same token, are full of assumptions regarding which factors to include and which to ignore.

The “hard” sciences yield more accurate predictions than ecology, and require the same kinds of assumptions.  However, there are far more limiations on the kinds of predictions given by the “hard” sciences.  All of which means, by my estimation, that ecology is even “harder” than the “hard” sciences!

Not really.  The whole point is that applying “hard” and “soft” to the sciences at all is an egregious faux pas.

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