Social Sciences: hard or soft science

HEC's first chairman, a scientist, did not think much of social science, current chairman believes its a soft science.

Dr Pervez Tahir December 01, 2011

Since the Nato intrusion into our western border, print media, talk shows, social networks and (to the extent we have them here) think tanks have been debating the strategic challenge facing the country. In effect, it is a serious challenge to our social, political and economic thinking. Narratives spun around this thinking do not crop up suddenly. Nor is their replacement a quick fix. The understanding of the critical issues involved here requires a serious knowledge of the social science, something that has not been embedded in our academic culture. In 2005, the late Inayatullah, Rubina Saigol and this writer had edited a book, Social Sciences in Pakistan, essentially a lament on their poor state. Six years on, one does not see much difference. The 2000s witnessed a surge in higher education funding, but the low share of social sciences reflected their status further down the priority list. Out of the total number of PhD graduates from 2003-10, only 24 per cent were in social sciences. From 2006-10, only eight per cent of the overseas scholarships were in social sciences. Their share in postdoctoral fellowships is around 20 per cent. All this information, it may be noted, has been taken from the HEC reports.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs, but an important one is the way social science is viewed by the managers of higher education. The first chairman of the HEC, a scientist, did not think much of social sciences. The current chairman believes that social sciences are a soft science. He can’t be serious unless he is following the pseudo scientist thumb rule that all disciplines claiming to be science by name — social science, political science and computer science — are not science! Science is science, neither hard nor soft. Such pejoratives have been used to create scenes, but not as a matter of serious argument. Famously in 1986, Serge Lang, a Yale mathematician, challenged the nomination of Samuel Huntington for the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. Huntington, at that time, was the president of the American Political Science Association. Lang found Huntington’s computation, in one of his works, of overall correlation between frustration and instability in a sample of countries, as nonsensical. “Does he have a social-frustration meter?” Lang had asked. It was, however, taken as no more than a teaser by other scientists. Science, it was understood, was not just about exact measurement in a laboratory. It was about explanation and prediction. In this general sense, the so-called soft sciences can in reality be harder than the so-called hard sciences. What is called the boundary problem in the philosophy of science is not hard versus soft, but science versus non-science.

In an article published in the American Psychologist in 1987, Larry Hedges carried out an exemplary comparison to show that the results of social experimentation were no less consistent than physical experimentation. Thus, the hard sciences may not be as hard as they are made out to be and, the soft sciences may be no less hard. The point is that, the neglect of social sciences has grave social costs. The root cause of our present mess is the cumulative lack of a scientific understanding of our history, peoples and society. An emphasis on physical science can give you nuclear capability, but a lack of emphasis on social science increases the chances of its abuse.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 2nd, 2011.


Nazia Jamil | 10 years ago | Reply

Economics is not a hard science but that does not make it any less important than Physics.

Meekal Ahmed | 10 years ago | Reply

Root causes of our present mess a lack of scientific understanding of our "history, peoples and society".

What about economics?

Our knowledge on that score is quite good, the analysis empirically rigorous, but memories are short!

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