What Is the Difference Between Hard Science and Soft Science?

Natural and Social Sciences

Scientist using pipette and multiwell dish in laboratory
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According to the Science Council: "Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence." The Council goes on to describe the Scientific Method

  • Objective observation: Measurement and data (possibly although not necessarily using mathematics as a tool)
  • Evidence
  • Experiment and/or observation as benchmarks for testing hypotheses
  • Induction: reasoning to establish general rules or conclusions drawn from facts or examples
  • Repetition
  • Critical analysis
  • Verification and testing: critical exposure to scrutiny, peer review, and assessment

In some cases, systematic observation using the scientific method is a relatively straightforward process which can be easily replicated by others. In other cases, objective observation and replication can be difficult if not impossible. In general, those sciences which can easily make use of the scientific method as described above are termed "hard sciences," while those for which such observations are difficult are termed "soft sciences."

Which Are the Hard Sciences?

Sciences which explore the workings of the natural world are usually called "hard sciences." These are also called the natural sciences. They include:

Hard sciences like these involve experiments which are relatively easy to set up controlled variables and make objective measurements. Results of hard science experiments can be represented mathematically, and the same mathematical tools are used consistently to measure and calculate outcomes. For example:

X quantity of Y mineral can be tested with Z chemical, with a mathematically describable outcome. The same quantity of mineral can be tested over and over again with the same chemical with precisely the same results. There should be no variation in outcome unless the materials used to conduct the experiment have changed (for example, the mineral sample or the chemical are impure).

What Are the Soft Sciences?

In general, the soft sciences deal with intangibles and relate to the study of human and animal behaviors, interactions, thoughts, and feelings. Soft sciences apply the scientific method to such intangibles, but because of the nature of living beings, it is almost impossible to recreate a "soft science" experiment with exactitude. Some examples of the soft sciences sometimes referred to as the social sciences, include:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology (in some of its aspects)

Particularly in sciences dealing with people, it may be difficult to isolate all the variables that may influence an outcome. In some cases, controlling the variable may even alter the results! Simply put, it is harder to devise an experiment in a soft science. For example:

A researcher hypothesizes that girls are more likely than boys to experience bullying. They select a cohort of girls and boys in a particular class in a particular school and follow their experience. In fact, they find that the boys are more likely to be bullied. The same experiment is repeated using the same number of children and the same methodologies in a different school. The opposite outcome occurs. The reasons for the differences are extremely difficult to determine, as they could relate to the teacher, the individual students, the socioeconomics of the school and surrounding community, etc. 

Hard and Soft Science: Bottom Line

The terms "hard science" and "soft science" are used less often than they used to be, in part because the terminology is misunderstood and therefore offensive. People perceive "harder" to imply "more difficult" when it may be much more challenging to devise and interpret an experiment in a so-called soft science than a hard science. The distinction between the two types of science is a matter of the how strongly you can state, test and then accept or reject the hypothesis. In the modern world, the degree of difficulty is less related to discipline than it is to the specific question, so one might say the terms "hard science" and "soft science" are outdated.