Tuesday, December 11, 2018

--- Hard science, soft science ---

"Hard" science is misleading. Social sciences, psychology, history - all that can be vastly more difficult than the "hard sciences". In the laboratory, everything other than what is being observed is controlled (and, often, what is being observed is also controlled, which begs the question, "Is what is being observed a fabrication?"). In the field, things can't be tightly controlled so there is always a lot of what scientists call "error".

"Error" isn't what it sounds like. It isn't "accident" or "misbehaving". The inconvenient fact is that even the purest of chemicals are not absolutely pure and there is no way of knowing exactly what impurities are present. No procedure is absolutely perfect and all we can do is specify how close to perfect it is (we can do that by specifying tolerances and checking to make sure these tolerances are met.)

Tiny imperfections are considered insignificant or negligible. Of course all the tiny imperfections add up, and that's what scientists call "error".

"Soft sciences" including field research in the hard sciences deal with lots of error so results of studies tend to include a lot of involved statistics that generate statements like, "The measurement is accurate within plus or minus ..... ," or "a trend was observed that ....," or "p is less than ...." These are statements of uncertainty.

In contrast, a hard scientist can confidentially tell you that the boiling point of pure water is 100.0 degree centigrade at one atmosphere of pressure. Observations made in the laboratory have very little error and therefore results of laboratory studies can often be reported with considerable certainty. Hard science is "hard" because of the "solidity" of it's results.

Up to now, I've been exploring the soft sciences around the Denver area, but I'm about to shift over to the hard sciences: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology. Along the way, you will see why even the hard sciences have their soft spots.

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