Created By: noblesix on October 5, 2011 Last Edited By: noblesix on June 27, 2013

Sliding Scale of Humanities Versus Sciences

Does a work lean more towards the social sciences or natural sciences?

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Early Development Phase. In academia, there is a strong sense of division between the humanities (sociology, history, anthropology, philosophy) and the natural sciences (biology, physics, chemistry), and anyone who has experience in academic circles is no stranger to the conflicts between these two spheres. The two branches of science have greatly different points of focus as well as different methods of study and research, and these differences can cause friction between academics on either side.

This relationship bleeds through into fiction. When the sciences are invoked in a work, are they drawing from the social sciences or natural sciences? Are both fields represented? Is one depicted as inferior to another?

This scale does not indicate how well a work adheres to the sciences it draws from, but rather where the science involved is coming from. In many cases, particularly at the far ends of the spectrum where sciences become largely theoretical, do not be surprised if the author takes liberties, gets lazy, or just makes shit up. This is also not indicative of whether or not science is viewed as a good or bad thing; the author's opinion of a field does not determine if that field will be called upon in their work.

In general, some works can fall under several categories at once, depending on how they're used.

Please note: this is still just on its first legs, and I'm fleshing it out as I go along. I'm an anthropology student, so I don't claim to have a good fix on the actualities of the natural sciences. This is just what I've noticed from fiction, and if there are scientists and engineers who can explain their fields better than I, go for it.

Type 1: Hard Science, Theory, A.K.A. the Hypothesis
  • The primary types of science invoked in a Type 1 are theoretical fields of the natural sciences. Theoretical sciences frequently deal with phenomena that are difficult, if not impossible, to empirically test in a practical fashion; the objects of study can be incredibly difficult to observe, perhaps. This type of science requires a lot of effort to develop proper experimental procedures as well; in any Type 1 work, expect to see people in lab coats standing around a chalk board covered in equations. Any piece of high science fiction will draw heavily from this field.

Type 2: Hard Science, Practice, A.K.A. the Experiment
  • Type 2 hard sciences involve experimentation and data collection, with a naarrow focus on the lab and the workshop. Common Type 2 sciences, in fiction, include experimental biology and chemistry, and engineering both mechanical and biological. Type 2 sciences can be studied with more practicality than theoretical sciences, but are still limited to rigid experimental conditions. These sciences often involve having specific apparatuses to conduct research. Type 2 hard sciences are probably the most common in any genre, mainly because they will produce tangible results more easily than other types, in the form of information and data or technology.

Type 3: Social Sciences
  • A type 3 science stands at the intersection between natural sciences and humanities. A diverse number of fields occupy this space, including sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, etc. Like the humanities, the type of results yielded by social sciences are qualitative in nature, but like the hard sciences, are often obtained through careful and methodological research. The subjects under this category are often criticized by members of academia on either side of the spectrum. Many subcategories exist within this typology and can lean towards other types, such as sociobiology, (some fields of) neuroscience, or physical anthropology. Type 3 sciences deal with plenty of theories, but are also able to draw from the methodological techniques of both natural sciences and humanities. Expect Type 3 science to involve statistics and plenty of fieldwork; most of the research conducted within the social sciences demands a presence within the field of study. Sometimes, interactions with the object of study can blur the boundary lines of research, but practitioners of social science are aware of this and study proper research methods and ethics extensively.

Type 4: Humanities, Practice, A.K.A. the Analysis
  • Humanities, also called the "soft" sciences, deal in qualitative research and observation, but lack the ability of experimentation that the hard sciences have. Type 4 fields of study include history, political science, and law. The practices of the humanities revolve around cases rather than experiments, incorporating case studies, interviews, historical documentation, and observation to draw conclusions, and are more flexible than the hard sciences in their ability to contextualize the objects of study. These fields create narratives rather than results, which is something that the hard sciences lack.

Type 5: Humanities, Theory, A.K.A. the Thesis
  • The fields of study included in Type 5, like the Type 4 humanities, are qualitative, but like Type 1, become very difficult to study practically and rely more on interpretation and discourse. Type 5 fields include philosophy, literature, fine arts, and theology. Type 5 subjects epitomize the ideal that there are no incorrect answers, and qualitative results are the product of personal interpretation of the object of study. These fields are not illogical, as some believe; in fact, logical reasoning and interpretation is the main focus of Type 5 discussions. Rhetoric, ethics, and metaphysics are important tools for anyone who engages in a Type 5 discourse, and interpretation is to a humanities practitioner what calculation is to a theoretical sciences practitioner.

No examples listed yet, simply because too many spring to mind right away to sort through.


  • Avatar is Type 2 and 3. Applied technology (the Avatars, mech suits, etc) is the big thing, but the film touches on several social concepts, such as cultural relativity. The film itself is a great meta-example of Type 3, since it is a highly romanticized depiction of the "other," or to use an outdated term, "noble savage."
  • The Last Samurai is a type 3. Like Avatar, it is also romanticizes the "otherly" samurai.

Live Action TV
  • The Big Bang Theory falls directly under Types 1 & 2, since the four main characters are a theoretical physicist, an experimental physicist, an astrophysicist, and an engineer, and their research is often brought up.
    • The show does dip its toes into type 3 with regularity, especially on occasions where Sheldon is unaware of social conventions.
  • Many of the conventions of Star Trek fall under the category of Type 1, as the show(s) frequently deal with theoretical science common to science fiction such as FTL travel.

Video Games
  • The Fallout games deal with Types 4 and 5. Themes common throughout the series such as the nature of humanity, of civilization, and of conflict are posed in philosophical ways. History is very significant in the Fallout 'verse, as both the sins and the promises of the Old World continue to resonate in the postapocalypse.
  • The Assassin's Creed series touches on most all of the five types. The fictional technology used as a framing device for the story is based on certain theoretical ideas about ancestry and DNA. The plot of the game revolves around fictionalized versions of historical events and people, and the significant themes of the games are often either philisophical (for example, the good of the many vs. the good of the few), or social (cultural and social changes, class conflicts, morality as a social construction).
Community Feedback Replies: 13
  • October 5, 2011
    • Dr Breanen, a forensic anthropologist, from Bones disdanes of "soft sciences" she has particular distaste of Psychology.
  • October 5, 2011
    This reminds me of the New Wave Soft Science Fiction, someone tried sending through ykttw a while back.
  • October 5, 2011
    jate, do you know what happened to it? Was it published, did it fall through?
  • October 5, 2011
  • October 5, 2011
    Is this different from Hard On Soft Science?
  • October 6, 2011
  • October 6, 2011
    I think type one should really be practice and that we should also divide the regular science types from the Humanities because, essentially, both should be considered equally important (at least for this trope, whether they actually are or not is a whole argument in-of itself).

  • June 22, 2013
    (Part 1) This kind of scale is fairly popular. But as an analytical tool, it is flawed.

    Usually, sliding scales (like idealism vs. cynicism or linearity vs. openness) revolve >one< question that can be answered in a one-dimensional way. Therefore sliding scales include opposing poles, and the scale moves from one extreme position to another extreme position, with more balanced or moderate positions in the middle.

    But disciplines that are counted as 'humanities' are not the opposite of 'sciences'. History, sociology, anthropology and economy use observation to test hypotheses. They use axioms and construct falsifiable theories. Sadly, there are some charlatans in 'humanities' - arguably more than in 'sciences'; but don't let that fool you - humanities can be as methodologically rigid and as critical as sciences. It is true that phyics and chemistry can usually afford to make stronger claims due to the relatively low complexity of their object of study. But there are many solid theories in 'humanities' that have reached the level of scientific consensus. For example, while historians do argue about many historical questions, many events, persons, structures and concepts of historical science are well-understood. There are many claims that historians can make with great certainty (which, of course, only means that they are considered viable until they have been falsified). It's just not correct to divide sciences and humanities by their alleged precision, because precision is not only relative to the object of study, but also varies within disciplines.

    There is, also, the issue of 'objectivity'. Now, I understand that it appears quite intuitive that it's harder for people to be objective when they're emotionally attached. It is true that 'humanities' research phenomena that one can more easily become attached to. But it is faulty logic to assume that 'humanities' are inherently, unavoidingly subjective. Professional academics in the humanities use many devices to enhance objectivity - critical self-reflection is one of them, but probably the strongest is peer review: if your arguments require a certain subjective background to be correct, than a person without that subjective background can disprove (falsify) them. Humanities are constantly revising, altering and dismissing older theories, just like sciences.

    Of course, the differentiation between "humanities" and "science" is not completely arbitrary. But it certainly cannot be adequately expressed with the proposed sliding scale. The explanations for the types reveal common misconceptions about humanities. Example 1: "social sciences are qualitative in nature, but like the hard sciences, are often obtained through careful and methodological research". This implies that humanities don't use careful and methodological research - this is to some degree true for essays, but studies and research papers are of course the result of careful and methodological research - what else? Guessing? Example 2: "Type 5 subjects epitomize the ideal that there are no incorrect answers, and qualitative results are the product of personal interpretation of the object of study". Of course there are incorrect answers in humanities: you use arguments to 'prove' your point, and if your arguments are wrong, your point is wrong. What is true is that there are no universally correct answers - which is true for science as well ("Suppose we found the truth. How could we find out that what we've found is indeed the truth? By comparing it to the truth, which we don't already have?" (D. Marjanovic)). But there are a thousand ways to construct a wrong argument - or an argument that is not falsifiable and thus invalid. And why is the interpretation of the object of study supposed to be 'personal'? You analyse and interpret a phenomenon, then you express this analysis as an argument. From then on, the argument exists independently of yourself - its validity or falseness has nothing to do with you personally - or, at least, it shouldn't, because that could lead to the ad hominem fallacy.
  • June 22, 2013
    (Part 2)

    Now, note that when I say 'humanities are X', I mean 'humanities, as they should be, are X', so I'm talking about the normative aim of humanities. This is usually what we do when we talk about science, though - some AIDS-deniers, for example, have scientific degrees, yet their claims and arguments are unscientific.

    So why do I think that the sliding scale of sciences vs. humanities should not be considered trope? Besides promoting a wrong view of humanities (and science, actually), it is unclear to me what the discriminating parameters and attributes are supposed to be. You could make a sliding scale of research object complexity - but that would have to be ordered differently. Parts of philosophy (the epistemology of the analytic branch, logic and language philosophy a lá Wittgenstein) and linguistics would actually be pretty far on the "non-complex" part of the scale. Theology would be pretty much in the middle, because it conveniently limits the scope of research by using arbitrary axioms (such as 'the bible is a revelation from god'). Some parts of biology would be more on the "complex" scale than some parts of sociology and history. You could try to make a sliding scale of rigidity vs. flexibility. Yet in such a scale, most of the humanities would belong to the "rigid" extreme - excluding essays and certain continental schools of thought like hegelian and/or marxist dialectics. But, if you allow me an illustrative exxageration, the destinction between science and humanities as it is made in this scale seems to express the attempt of some people on the "science" end of the scale to boost their own importance and ego - which is graciously picked up by laypeople who are interested in humanities subjects but want to keep their myth that "all opinions are equally worthy in the humanities" so they don't have to bother doing actual research and being precise and thorough.
  • June 22, 2013
    Agree with Megestos: tl;dr version is (@Megestos: feel free to correct me if I've misunderstood) the underlying assumption of the trope is flawed because, Interservice Rivalry between "hard" and "soft" sciences notwithstanding, both sides are just as based in peer review scientific practices.

    On a purely practical level, the mods are frowning on new sliding scale snowclones (the most recent one, Sliding Scale Of Continuity, was approved, however). Motion to discard.
  • June 22, 2013
    Now, I've always learned that "humanities" (history, philosophy) =/= "social sciences" (anthropology, sociology). I'm very surprised to learn the OP is an anthro major because I would have thought his depiction was a caricature from the perspective of the physical sciences; he's basically admitting his own field isn't rigorous and data-based. Then again, my own perspective is from a mostly-philosophy background...
  • June 27, 2013
    Not sure if this trope is viable from my own science-oriented perspective, either. The distinction between the two ways you've categorized science don't seem to be valid, as there aren't many branches of research in which at least some kind of experimentation or predictive testing isn't possible. Even thought-experiments are generally constructed to allow for genuine tests to verify their consequences, if not observe their actual events.

    The Type 1 that's proposed here, if anything, would better describe pure mathematics than science.
  • June 27, 2013
    Obligatory xkcd link with a line graph of "fields arranged by purity" from sociology to mathamatics.