Saturday, August 25, 2007

How would you like your science today: hard or soft?

[This post was contributed by Verity Robert via email]

One of the remaining questions presented in class was what distinguishes hard science from soft science. A tour of these concepts on the internet leads one to believe that hard science is more accurate and objective than the soft science, and, as The Onion puts it, fields like quantum physics are
also “undeniably a really stupid, pointless thing to study, something you could never actually use in the real world” (Issue 38-21, 05 June 2002). Personally, I consider fields like physics to be hard science because, in addition to the description above, they have been able to represent the world and understand its processes through mathematics. Whether it be newtonian or quantum mechanics, cosmology or celestial bodies, we can understand how the universe works and what we may be missing from the model. And whilst the principles and laws may be defined only for ideal/perfect/vacuum conditions, they have put humans on the moon.

However, the comical point made by The Onion is one worth considering: is it worthwhile to develop a field so abstractly that it becomes pointless in every day life? Having studied astrophysics, I think it is reasonable to say that whilst quantum physics may not be practical on a day-to-day basis, the concepts and understandings that have come from it have provided insights into how the universe begun, the life and death of stars, and what may be missing from our model of the universe, such as dark matter/energy, to name a few. The point being that perhaps laws can only really help in our understanding of the world on a small scale, but nevertheless necessary to our understanding of how the world works on the large scale. And that maybe being able to understand the big picture requires our ability to make intuitive leaps between certain concepts. I think macroecology has the potential to do this and achieve all or most of the goals it has set out for itself, but the temporal aspect will be the most difficult to accomplish. Perhaps that is why ecology has had a difficult time in establishing laws and itself as a hard science; that though it may practice the scientific method, the ideas and theories it presents about how the world works may not always be verifiable for past processes. That even if it were to define the world to a point that everyone was happy with, taking into account all the “friction,” certain aspects of that “friction” may not be knowable about the past, and thereby not testable. Then there is also the question of how much of the “friction” is actually negligible and is there a way to test that necessary “friction” (perhaps through computer modeling, maybe multivariate statistics)?

At this point I feel I am just rambling, so I will leave off here.

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