Hard on Soft Science


"All science is either physics or stamp collecting."
Nobel-laureate physicist Ernest Rutherford

Many "hard" Science Fiction authors, trained as they are in the hard sciences, tend to take digs at the softer sciences in their works. The reasons for this vary, but the most common criticism is that it's much harder to perform repeatable experiments. Scientists strive towards empiricism and the "scientific method", and many humanities or social sciences are trying to study things that cannot easily be studied strictly and subjected to experimentation, which makes writers feel justified in considering them as "pseudoscience".

This happens outside of science fiction as well. Often, scientist characters in non-Science Fiction shows will disrespect the softer sciences when they have to deal with them. In real life, common targets are Psychology (see below), Psychiatry (often portrayed as the medical equivalent of the Church of Happyology, which is ironic considering that church's own attitude towards it), Economics ("The Dismal Science"), Linguistics (except by some, c.f. Sheldon Cooper), &c.. Some can have a grudging respect for economics and political science, the two that tell if they will get any money for rockets and particle accelerators, but psychology, sociology and the like are Acceptable Targets.

Think of it as an interdisciplinary Take That. How much the rivalry is Serious Business, and how much friendly banter, depends on the people involved. It's still an influential conflict that not only has spawned new theories and schools, but became a full blown "war" during the 90's. The standard comeback from soft scientists is that their subject is more "applicable" or more relevant to life and society at large (e.g.: as hit and miss as psychology can be, even biologists admit that neurological or even pharmacological solutions to mood disorders should only be a last resort). Another reaction is that these complaints come from those for whom science has been fetishized by, usually non-scientists, thus missing the point entirely and cheapening both.

A related phenomenon is "hard science" and business students criticizing subjects like Literary Criticism and Philosophy for being more Wild Mass Guessing and having little utility in careers outside the academic world. This overlooks actual, legitimate philosophies that adults can also make use of (like for example, studying logic and reasoning), and of course, how in Real Life businesses prefer candidates who bring different perspectives and ways of thinking to their jobs.

Also see All Psychology Is Freudian, which also contributes to how psychology became such a target - psychoanalysis is blatantly unscientific navel-gazing, but because it was one of psychology's most vocal minorities, the "psychologists sitting in couches charging 200 bucks to talk about Your Mom" stereotype became a Never Live It Down. Modern types of psychology such as behaviorism, cognitive science and neuroscience are a lot harder yet just as practical. In this case, calling Freudians quacks would work, but Skinner's experiments have been repeatedly verified. However, the history of scams, the possible lack of ethics - see these experiments, the Bedlam House, and behaviorism's possibility of abuse - and "pop psychology" in general still haven't liberated it from being an acceptable target.

Similarly, there are a number of quantitative-minded sociologists who use complex statistical methods that rival those of the hard sciences in their own research.

In another approach, this trope derives from the fact that Hard Science uses very strict methods of analysis to verify their own truth or falsehood and when said methods are applied to Soft Science the difference in method often leads to the perception of being judged harshly while Hard Researchers are just judging Soft Researchers as hard as they judge themselves.

Compare and contrast Science Is Bad and Science Is Wrong. See MD Envy and Not That Kind of Doctor, which can be related.

Not related to erections in any way and more specifically not related to the Sci-Fi Ghetto.


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  • In Arrival, when Ian, a theoretical physicist, meets Louise, he's reading her book on linguistics. He points out that she's wrong that language is the foundation of civilization, science is. Of course, given that they're dealing with a race of Starfish Aliens with a Starfish Language, who don't think in a linear manner, Louise'a expertise turns out to be far more useful than Ian's. It's pointed out that his idea of using simple linear equations fails. Strangely, the aliens are able to recognize more complex three-dimensional equations (because they are non-linear).

  • There's an old joke where the dean of a college complains how much the various science departments are costing the college. The chemistry department needs test tubes and bunsen burners, the physics department needs particle accelerators and Tesla coils, the astronomy department needs telescopes, etc.. He says, "Why can't they be more like the Mathematics classes? They only need paper and a wastebasket. And the Philosophy department is even cheaper; they don't even need the wastebasket!"
    • Ironically, math could be considered "harder" (as in more theoretical, less empirical) than any of the other sciences.
    • Randall Munroe had a strip about this here
  • Q: What did the <insert choice of Butt Monkey field here> major say to the <insert any "practical" or "hard" science here> major?
    A: "Would you like fries with that?"
  • A graffito frequently seen in toilets in the science departments and library at the University of East Anglia, Norwich: written on the toilet paper dispenser: Sociology Degrees. Please take as many as you need.

  • In Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, a few intellectuals met by the computer scientist protagonist are insufferable idiots with little grip on reality. On the other hand, the insufferable idiots are shown to have social skills, unlike most of the protagonists, and Enoch Root is both a priest, philosopher, and cryptographer.
  • The statistician narrator in Stanisław Lem's His Master's Voice pejoratively calls the group of linguists, psychologists, "pleiographers" etc. "elves".
  • Inverted in Stephen King's The Stand. Not only is hard science bad, but one of the heroes is a sociologist.
  • In Starship Troopers, Heinlein goes on at length about how flawed 20th century psychology was/is. However Future!Psychology teaches nothing but "hard truths"... by the math department.
    If it can't be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion.
  • Discussed and subverted in Michael Crichton's Sphere. One of the Jerk Ass physicists asks what somebody from such a useless field as psychology is doing on the mission. The psychologist protagonist points out (perhaps only to himself) what terrible people skills the average physicist has. It turns out the psychologist is the only one mentally stable enough to handle the nigh-omnipotence the title sphere gives without killing everyone.
  • Also discussed in another Crichton novel, Timeline, where there is an even starker contrast as it's between a physicist and a historian. Perhaps deconstructed, since the physicist protagonist solves problems in the present, while the historians solve problems in the past.
  • Shows up repeatedly in the works of Greg Egan, most notably in Schild's Ladder.
  • This is zigzagged in That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis — one of the protagonists and most of our villains are sociologist-types. It goes so far that Values Dissonance rams this book into Poe's Law.
    • On one hand, one minor character is an eminent chemist. He has a brief conversation with the (currently bamboozled) sociologist protagonist: Sociologist: "I can quite understand that it [the villains' scheme] doesn't fit in with your work as it does with sciences like Sociology, but—" Chemist: "There are no sciences like Sociology." The chemist is then murdered by the villains, the sociologist framed for the murder, and blackmailed into running propaganda for them. Lewis's objection to sociology (within the book, at least) was that it, like the other soft sciences, invites the scientist to treat people as specimens, without compassion. His chemist says, "I happen to believe that you can't study men; you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing."
    • On the other hand, the de facto main character of the trilogy is a philologist (one who studies language), and his ability to communicate complex ideas ends up being extremely important, and the main villain of the first two books is a physicist.
    • In the end it treats the branches as more complimentary; "soft" sciences are useless without harder material backing them up, but "hard" sciences turn out dehumanizing without "soft" sciences to keep them in check.
  • In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series psychology is a major factor in the series along, with Hari Seldon's psychohistory a specific branch. However a closer examination will tell you it shares little to nothing with current practice, having through the countless centuries become a hard mathematical science... and also gives you psychic powers because y'know. Psychohistory itself is the statistical analysis of humanity that in sufficient mass becomes completely predictable, modern statistics Up to Eleven.
  • Deliberately inverted in Seanan McGuire's short story "Laughter at the Academy"; a mad psychologist, disgruntled by the lack of respect for her field, repeatedly sparks Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder in previously-stable hard scientists to make a point about where true power lies.

    Live Action Television 
  • In Bones, Temperance Brennan takes constant digs at psychology, saying it's unscientific...this despite constantly being proven wrong, or using principles from it herself (with bizarre justifications about how it's not psychology), or even the obvious effectiveness of psychological profiler Dr. Sweets. This is frequently lampshaded by other characters.
    • This behavior was actually the subject of a Take That in an episode where Booth and Bones head to a mental hospital where Bones makes pointed remarks to the head psychologist there. Eventually after a while of this the psychologist finally gets sick of this and points out that while her expertise in the dead is all fine and dandy, he's using his training to help 'living people' who desperately need it, soft science or not.
      • In the same episode, Bones mistakes a delusional patient for an actual doctor. It's unclear as to whether this supports her view (psychiatry minus the pharmacology degree can be perfectly emulated by any reasonably bright basket case) or not.
    • She's since changed her mind during a period where Sweets was staying with her. Apparently he leaves his psychology books and journals by the toilet and she started reading them. Much to her surprise she found them scientific, eye-opening, and useful for understanding the thought processes and emotions of both herself and others.
      • Given her lack of social skills in youth, emotional detachment/repression, sensitivity to criticism, and arrogance in regards to her own intelligence, insight, and objectivity, it's not hard to believe that she had a few negative experiences with a psychologist or two when she was younger and wrote off the whole field as quackery for years as a result.
    • Bones and Sweets are interrogating a super genius because he menaced a scientist who was building a device that theoretically could destroy the universe. The man works as a welder. When Sweets tells him that for being a genius his profession is very humble, the man retorts that at least his work is real-psychologists cannot say that of themselves.
    • On one occasion, Brennan voices her distaste for psychology to a psychologist played by Stephen Fry, and he promptly agrees. He seems to regard himself primarily as a therapist, though of course he is trained in psychology.
  • On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon (a theoretical physicist) is often belittling engineers (like Howard) even calling them "the Oompa-Loompas of science" once. Of course, Sheldon tends to belittle anyone who doesn't live up to his lofty standards (i.e., everyone else), including his other friends Raj (an astrophysicist) and Leonard (an experimental physicist).
    • Sheldon also fell victim to a more literal version of this trope when he briefly comments on the inaccuracy of the social sciences in the episode "The Friendship Algorithm", while he presents Penny with his "friendship questionnaire". He wasn't happy about doing one, as in his view the social sciences are 'largely hokum', but saw no alternative. Sheldon even botches the methodology: no social scientist in their right mind would expect a respondent to handle a 200-question exam.
      • Not to mention that questionnaires or interviews are subject to people altering their answers to please the one asking the questions - hence why many social sciences try hard to make sure the subjects are comfortable and act as they would naturally.
    • He was also horrified by the thought of funding going to the English Literature and Philosophy departments: "Oh, the Humanities!"
    • Leonard's parents (a neurologist and an anthropologist) apparently only used sex in their relationship for reproduction, and both wrote papers on it. His mother visits and discusses this with Sheldon, pointing out because her paper was from a neurological standpoint that means it was the only one worth reading, to which Sheldon promptly agrees.
    • In the episode where Sheldon has to give a speech, one of his opening jokes is at the expense of a geologist, which he (drunkenly) follows with 'I joke with the geologists, but it's only because I have no respect for their field.' This one is interesting because of the fact that geology is a hard science.
      • As is neurobiology, Amy Farrah Fowler's field which Sheldon is condescending toward, leading to their 'breakup' and Sheldon's acquiring 25 cats. Most of the evidence suggests that Sheldon just thinks all other scientists (or for that matter, all other humans) and their work are innately inferior to him and his work.
      • Sheldon's hatred of geology ("the dirt people!") has become a running gag.
      • Physicists and geologists historically were rivals (covered in the book A Short History of Nearly Everything) as in the past they were the two major branches of science solving many of the same problems and competing for the same talent and benefactors. Given that it's Sheldon, it's not that surprising he hasn't yet gotten over that grudge from centuries ago.
    • Amy Farrah Fowler has also belittled Bernadette's field of microbiology, saying that while she studies the brain ("the organism responsible for Beethoven's symphony"), Bernadette studies yeast ("the organism responsible for 'Mueller light'.").
    • Interestingly, Sheldon usually takes linguistics very seriously even though it is considered one of the "soft" sciences, often pointing out phonetically correct ways to say the words he's written (and pointing to the word written in the international phonetic alphabet).
      • Which makes his horrible handle on Klingon phonetics and pronunciation even funnier. And Chinese. Although in one episode he is seen learning Finnish - for recreation.
    • He took it pretty badly when another physicist made fun of his own specialty this way, though.
    • Interestingly, however, when Raj's sister Priya was going out with Leonard, Sheldon uncharacteristically never mocked her academic discipline (the law), despite disliking her. Fridge Brilliance kicks in when you realize that a discipline comprised largely of making and/or interpreting strict rules and regulations which maintain or promote social order is right up Sheldon's alley.
    • Sheldon's arrogance towards other disciplines and walks of life can also frequently be his undoing. In one example, he pompously informed Penny that, as a theoretical physicist, he had a flawless knowledge of everything in the universe. Penny promptly asked him to describe who Radiohead were. Several seconds of desperate twitching later, this was snottily amended to everything important in the universe.
  • In Stargate Atlantis, an early episode has McKay claim that medicine is more akin to voodoo than real science. This while said "voodoo" is being used to administer a gene therapy which will allow him to use Ancient technology. Medicine is voodoo to HIM, because he can't understand it. It just feels like he is belittling the entire profession because... well... he's McKay.
  • House makes plenty of jokes at the expensive of psychologists and psychiatrists, regarding them as studying a shoddy science and uninteresting branch of medicine respectively. Then again, there's barely anyone or any profession House doesn't hold in disdain, so it's not that new for him.
    Wilson: Never before has a profession been so decried by someone who needed it so badly.

  • Among other tunes Tom Lehrer performed in the 1997 performance on archive.org is "Sociology". The Take That flies both ways, though - he was satirizing both sociologists and people who frown on them, something that flies above the heads of Youtube commentators.
  • This piece by physicist and musician Arthur Roberts is dripping with disdain for the weaker sciences. Many of his other songs also feature barbs at social sciences, albeit less prominently.

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  • xkcd:
  • Skin Horse, here.
  • Schlock Mercenary:
    • Heartily mocked in the author's note for this strip.
    • In this strip Liz comments on how the trope attitude has resulted in her studies in memetics, linguistics, and sociology resulted in her landing a fast food job.
  • Inverted in this Hark! A Vagrant strip. H. G. Wells seems a little hard on hard science.
  • One Girl Genius strip involves a mad social scientist griping about the fact that the Sparks who go into the hard sciences get all the funding.
    Scientist: I told the Baron, give me a thousand orphans, a hedge maze, and enough cheese, and I can...
  • Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, otherwise noted for indulging heavily in this trope, lampooned Rutherford's statement by claiming that every physicist has a couple of years in grad school when they don't even know what questions they should be asking, followed by a decade, maybe a decade and a half of productive work, followed by spending the rest of their lives telling other scientists how deluded they are.

    Web Original 
  • BOFH and his assistant got some analyst estimating them for security purposes. Using Inkblot Test and Word Association Test. Guess who was a butt of the joke?
  • Gordon Freeman of Freeman's Mind feels indignant toward psychology. Although, this may have less to do with scientific elitism than the fact that Gordon is a friggin' loon, and as such not enamored of what they probably have to say about him. He's even more dismissive of string theorists, who are toward the soft end of physics research, essentially regarding them as goat-sacrificing cultists.
  • The page picture is the first image of the What If? entry "All the Money", in which author Randall Munroe handwaves away how you managed to acquire all the money that exists by invoking A Wizard Did It. The image is of Rob and Megan from xkcd, and Rob has drawn a pentacle on the floor.
    Megan: Whatchya doing?
    Rob: Economics.
    Alt Text: Well, yes, I can see THAT.

    Real Life 
  • The Sokal hoax was a Take That from a physics professor to postmodernist social studies academics, or more specifically, the tendency of po-mo theorists to pepper their writings with nonsensical scientific analogies to make their work sound more rigorous than it is. Sokal sent a paper of pure drivel which would embarrass a second year physics student, but wrote it so it agreed with the political and social views of the journal Social Text. Sokal's paper (in brief - the real paper contains more nonsense than can be discussed here) argued that a properly free mathematics would free us from the social constructs which are implied by our rigid, unyielding, dogmatic, anti-feminist, capitalist, and unjust theory of gravity. Of course, they did publish it of their own free will...
  • Real scientists engage in this to varying degrees, though mostly it tends to be light-hearted ribbing between colleagues. Especially given that actually annoying the other fields means they won't be able to ask that department for help when something comes up in their work that they can't answer on their own.
    • Nearly every academic discipline has this; it's hardly unique to the sciences. Philosophers are treated as Acceptable Targets by pretty much every discipline, including - maybe especially - philosophy itself. Economists likewise. And sociologists, especially the more qualitatively-minded ones. And virtually every time someone in a more traditional academic discipline deigns to even mention Communications, it's in the form of a Take That. In all cases, these things can range anywhere from good-natured ribbing to genuine seething hatred. Many who are so hateful of other fields will however not be well regarded, no matter their skill in their own field.
  • In 2012, an atheist philosopher from Belgium duped a theology conference with a Sokal-style hoax. The philosophers who were doped acknowledged they thought the paper was bupkis, but admitted it wasn't out of the range of what they had previously published.
  • Evolutionary psychology seems to be the go-to field (or approach) for many people who want social norms and mores explained, but dislike the nature of fields like sociology or social anthropology.
    • And many other psychologists, and also biologists (who, after all, came up with the theory of evolution in the first place) are detractors of evo psych and accuse it of being reductionist, essentialist, or lacking in evidence. Evolutionary psychology adherents, on the other hand, accuse them of being politically correct and rejecting its evidence due to this contradicting pet theories.
  • Richard Feynman was infamous for this approach. An anecdote supposedly had him insult the Philosophy department at his university during a faculty speech, which resulted in the entire department walking out on him. He did eventually grow out of it as he began studying the arts, multiple languages (although he rather famously hated Japanese), and began his popular writing career. He also noted that Psychology was rather useful when trying to crack combination locks, as people tend to pick combinations that have some significance for them (other scientists using mathematical constants, overconfident Army types leaving them on the default, etc).
  • Sometimes you don't even need scientists to get that. Just get some engineering/exact sciences (computing, math, physics) and humanities/social sciences (anthropology, history, psychology, communication studies) together and they'd probably taking shots at each other's areas. Not to mention paychecks...
  • Conservative publicists sometimes approach this attitude, since they see modern academic teaching in literature, sociology etc. to be overriden by left-wing philosophy, while science such as physics and mathematics remains perfectly objective and politically neutral.
    • Institutionalized in the governance of the Iranian higher education system, where the government has repeatedly "crack[ed]down" on social science professors for spreading western and "insufficiently Islamic" ideas and ideologies. For similar reasons as above, the far more apolitical hard sciences don't attract that scrutiny.
      • Even hard sciences become politicized under sufficiently autocratic regimes. The study of genetics in the Soviet Union was hamstrung by a strong preference for communist theorists even when they were incorrect, and Nazi Germany's research on atomic weapons was crippled by their antisemitism (many of the pioneers were Jewish, and the Nazis even referred to the entire field as "Jewish physics").
      • Even in less autocratic places, biology is often politicized thanks to it's basic concepts like evolution and genetics clashing with the religious views of certain groups.
  • Graffiti seen on a toilet roll dispenser at the University of East Anglia: Sociology degrees. Please take as many as you need.
  • Quantitatively-oriented sociologists who use statistics and surveys can display this attitude toward their postmodern colleagues.
  • Likewise, quantitative psychologists who make heavy use of math and/or physiological measurements may frown upon touchy-feely qualitative approaches like social or humanistic psychology.
  • Margaret Thatcher, a research chemist before going into politics, remarked "What a luxury" to a student who told her she was studying Norse literature.
  • Mathematicians tend to look down on every other subject in a tongue-in-cheek way (and pure mathematicians even look down on applied maths).
  • In construction, "soft" is planning, "hard" is execution: architects design buildings emphasizing the art, leading engineers to struggle in finding out how to make them actual edifices, making them frequently dis\mock architects. Add a third party, and there is an old joke:
    What's an architect? Someone who wasn't manly enough to be an engineer, nor gay enough to be a designer.
  • Physicists in particular have a reputation of being contemptuous of every other scientific discipline and other people in general.