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What is Soft Science?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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The term “soft science” is sometimes used to refer to branches of scientific inquiry which rely more on conjecture and qualitative analysis than rigorous adherence to the scientific method. This phrase is often used as a pejorative, differentiating it from “hard science,” with the implication that only hard science is real science. A number of fields could be considered soft science, including the social sciences, psychology, and anthropology, although in fact these fields represent a mix of soft and hard science.

In hard science, the focal point is experiments. Researchers set up experiments which can be carefully controlled and reproduced, and they use these experiments to test a hypothesis, collecting data which can be analyzed in a variety of ways to gather information about the outcome of the experiment. Hard science relies on direct observation, and prides itself on being as balanced and unbiased as possible. The goal is to get to the facts above all else.

Soft science may or may not involve experiments, depending on the field, and the experiments may be harder to control or reproduce. Psychological studies, for example, have a number of variables which cannot be controlled, making it difficult to analyze the data from such experiments, or to ask other researchers to repeat the experiment. This branch of the sciences utilizes conjecture and a more open-ended discussion, rather than sticking to clearly defined boundaries, facts, and topics, and conjectures in soft science may be unprovable with experiments and other research.

Psychology is often used as an example of soft science. Some branches of psychology certainly do tend in the soft direction, since this science involves the exploration of the human mind, consciousness, and other slippery topics. However, psychologists have also managed to stage very successful experiments to test hypotheses, and these experiments have been clearly replicable, demonstrating all the traits of hard science.

Some people suggest that the boundary between soft and hard science is largely artificial, and that the differences between the two may be exaggerated. Some scientists agree with this point of view, preferring to differentiate between good and bad science rather than hard and soft science, and pointing out that many of the alleged “hard sciences,” like physics, rely on vast leaps of logic and conjecture, especially at the higher levels. Had Einstein been limited by the confines of hard science, for example, he might never have come up with this Theory of Relativity, since the theory involved a great deal of conjecture and a scientific leap of faith when he first came up with it.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon962189 — On Jul 22, 2014

I'd just like to point out that Einstein's Theory of Relativity isn't quite the "out of the blue" leap of faith many people seem to think it was. It dealt with the very real problem of how to define frames of reference in physics which had emerged as a serious issue once it became apparent that the luminous aether didn't exist, and the empirical observation that the speed of light was constant.

What he did, effectively, was use a more generalized geometrical form when describing the laws of the universe, using a mix of empirical fact (ie. the constant speed of light), and the assumption that the laws of the universe are consistent.

The implications were profound, but the theory was well-grounded and certainly belongs firmly within the domain of "hard science". What you said may be true of string theories and their ilk, however.

By anon349018 — On Sep 22, 2013

The things people are saying here about Freud aren't wrong really, but to look at him like he ruined the science of psychology is ridiculous. He was practically the founder of psychology. He didn't know as much as we do now and a lot of what he did was guessing, but he has some very innovative thoughts that helped develop the field.

So, yes there were a lot of problems with his theories and much of it has been debunked, but he was still extremely important in psychology and people should acknowledge that.

By anon300181 — On Oct 29, 2012

Psychology is researching human thought and behavior, not molecules, or gravity, you can't compare the methods because they have completely different purposes. Psychology is criticized by people who are overwhelmed by the idea of studying something as broad and ambiguous as human thought patterns and behavior, thus they come to the conclusion that it's a soft science.

By anon299845 — On Oct 26, 2012

I guess psychology is still seen as a soft science due to the sheer damage done to the field by Freud.

By anon233580 — On Dec 08, 2011

The biggest problem psychologists face is ethics, because people get kind of upset when you suggest things like growing babies in a lab under the care of robots, so as to control all of the variables effecting them. It's virtually impossible to control for every variable.

For that reason, psychologists (with the exception of neuroscientists) have to use statistics to come up with their data and consequently can only ever really talk about what people are likely to do. That being said, statistics are a powerful thing and a .01 confidence interval is nothing to screw around with.

By anon172820 — On May 05, 2011

Psychology is a vast field, ranging from the more speculative yet sometimes based on good experiments) social and evolutionary psychology, to the "harder" neuro psychology. It thus cannot be simply placed in one category or the other. It is not "always" speculative and lacking scientific rigour, as a commenter suggests.

By the way: Freud's theories have been debunked, and abandoned by serious psychologists years ago.

By anon169730 — On Apr 22, 2011

yes, because it always try to reach the causes through either freudian or other theories that may seem containing some truth but indeed none of them has the whole guess for thousands of different characters and personalities. So, it is still lacking in enough tools or precised material that would qualify it purely to a "Hard" science.

By anon137756 — On Dec 29, 2010

psychology is often criticized as being soft science. why?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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