Schools of Thought in the Hard and Soft Sciences

A framework for determining the difference between the hard and soft sciences.

A recent post in one of the blogs at Discover Magazine the other day had me thinking about the shape of science over time.

Neuroscientists don’t seem to disagree on the big issues. Why are there no big ideas in neuroscience?

Neuroskeptic, Where Are The Big Ideas in Neuroscience? (Part 1)

The article made me wonder about the divide between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences, and how we might better define and delineate them. Perhaps in a particular field, the greater the proliferation of “schools of though,” the more likely something is to be a soft science? (Or mathematically speaking, there’s an inverse relationship in a field between how well supported it is and the number of schools of thought it has.) I consider a school of thought to be a hypothetical/theoretical proposed structure meant to potentially help advance the state of the art and adherents join one of many varying camps while evidence is built up (or not) until one side carries the day.

Firmness of Science vs. # of Schools of Thought
Simple linear approximation of the relationship, though honestly something more similar to y=1/x which is asymptotic to the x and y axes is far more realistic.

Theorem: The greater the proliferation of “schools of though,” the more likely something is to be a soft science.

Generally in most of the hard sciences like physics, biology, or microbiology, there don’t seem to be any opposing or differing schools of thought. While in areas like psychology or philosophy they abound, and often have long-running debates between schools without any hard data or evidence to truly allow one school to win out over another. Perhaps as the structure of a particular science becomes more sound, the concept of schools of thought become more difficult to establish?

For some of the hard sciences, it would seem that schools of thought only exist at the bleeding edge of the state-of-the-art where there isn’t yet enough evidence to swing the field one way or another to firmer ground.

Example: Evolutionary Biology

We might consider the area of evolutionary biology in which definitive evidence in the fossil record is difficult to come by, so there’s room for the opposing thoughts for gradualism versus punctuated equilibrium to be individual schools. Outside of this, most of evolutionary theory is so firmly grounded that there aren’t other schools.

Example: Theoretical Physics

The relatively new field of string theory might be considered a school of thought, though there don’t seem to be a lot of other opposing schools at the moment. If it does, such a school surely exists, in part, because there isn’t the ability to validate it with predictions and current data. However, because of the strong mathematical supporting structure, I’ve yet to hear anyone use the concept of school of thought to describe string theory, which sits in a community which seems to believe its a foregone conclusion that it or something very close to it represents reality. (Though for counterpoint, see Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics.)

Example: Mathematics

To my knowledge, I can’t recall the concept of school of thought ever being applied to mathematics except in the case of the Pythagorean School which historically is considered to have been almost as much a religion as a science. Because of its theoretical footings, I suppose there may never be competing schools, for even in the case of problems like P vs. NP, individuals may have some gut reaction to which way things are leaning, everyone ultimately knows it’s going to be one or the other (P=NP or P \neq NP). Many mathematicians also know that it’s useful to try to prove a theorem during the day and then try to disprove it (or find a counterexample) by night, so even internally and individually they’re self-segregating against creating schools of thought right from the start.

Example: Religion

Looking at the furthest end of the other side of the spectrum, because there is no verifiable way to prove that God exists, there has been an efflorescence of religions of nearly every size and shape since the beginning of humankind. Might we then presume that this is the softest of the ‘sciences’?

What examples or counter examples can you think of?

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Author: Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

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