From time to time, Bear Tracks will include posts written by our own graduate students about issues relevant to their fields. Today’s post is written by Rachel Renbarger, a 5th year doctoral candidate in Educational Psychology, president of the Baylor Graduate Student Association, and a scientist. 

As a child, I never thought I would be a “scientist.” Sure, I might be a pediatrician, a veterinarian, or an astronaut, but none of these were a white guy in a lab coat stirring mysterious and colorful liquids in test tubes. Bill Nye was a scientist because he made potions and cared about the formula for velocity. Because I did not, I decided, I would not be a scientist. 

Of course, most of these thoughts were hidden in my subconscious. Growing up in rural Oklahoma to parents who barely made it out of high school, I was surrounded by people who worked in the service industry or on farms. The only lab coat I had ever seen was on TV but I didn’t think about how that might sway my view of the world. 

Now, fast forward to 2019 where I have allegedly been a scientist for years. I enrolled in graduate school in 2015 into the department of educational psychology. Ed psych was called a “soft science,” but why was that? Referring back to my childhood ideas of science, education did not have people in lab coats but psychology did. Was that why it was “soft,” because it was a mixed breed of fields? Someone told me early on that “soft” science dealt with how people function in the world; it was “soft” because human relationships and the thoughts in the brain- two things that are pliable and difficult to measure- were central to what we studied. Other students, who tended to scoff when I complained about the difficulty of my field, told me that only those in the “hard” science knew pain because their work was undoubtedly more difficult. 

With all of these definitions, ranging from naive to aggressive, what was I supposed to believe about my work? What was “soft” about it? Should I even care? 

Well, apparently Norman W. Storer is to blame, at least partially, for the false (or at least outdated) dichotomy between “soft” and “hard” science. In his article from 1967, he outlined key differences between these two realms of research. To him, “hard” science: 

  1. “…is one that requires more effort to learn.” 
  2. Makes a scientific contribution. 
  3. Follows precise (rigorous) rules of knowledge organization. 
  4. Requires more time to understand thanks to the complex nature of system relationships.  
  5. Has a greater degree of impersonality.
  6. Incorporates math more frequently. 
  7. “Will be less characterized by rampant faddism, by reputations quickly made and quickly forgotten.”

I could write an entire post on each of these points, but it seems clear that these are NOT the rules we should follow to divide the sciences. 

Ideally all science requires much effort to learn, makes a contribution, and follows the scientific method. Take any graduate student aside and ask them a question from a core methods class and they could expound for hours on theories and systematic ways of doing their research. We scientists try to be critical and objective, bracketing our positions when possible. Not to mention- all science deals with fads (bloodletting or anti-vaxxing, anyone?). If these social sciences were so easy, wouldn’t every person go for a PhD in economics or linguistics?

 So, even though I do not wear a lab coat, I can be a scientist. Chemists can be scientists. Anthropologists and sociologists can be scientists. There are no better or worse sciences if all are creating a better world. There is no reason to try and belittle the work of others. Let’s focus on the science rather than uphold arbitrary categories of humans. 

For further reading, check out the 2005 article in Nature: The International Journal of Science on this topic. It is noteworthy that the article begins with this quote, “‘Hard’ scientists should stop looking down their noses at social scientists, and instead share methods that could help them address pressing societal problems.”