Making progress in the hardest science

The name of this blog comes from a talk I gave at the SPSP conference.

The talk was in a training symposium for people starting out in academic psychology. People at various stages of their careers were invited to talk about how we approach research. I titled my talk “Making Progress in the Hardest Science,” and the first third of the talk was a half-serious, half joking explanation of the title.

The idea is that you often hear people arrange the sciences on a continuum from “hard” to “soft,” with physics at the hard end and psychology at the soft end. The implicit message is that the “hard” sciences are more scientific. But that’s not based on anything fundamental or substantive. As best as I can tell, it’s about scienciness. We have these preconceptions and stereotypes about what science is supposed to be about — big fancy equipment, lab coats, etc. But that’s not science. That’s the superficial sheen of scienciness.

What science is is a method of inquiry. In a nutshell, it’s the application of logic to empirical evidence. And by that measure, physics and biology and psychology are equally and fully scientific, because we’re all trying to figure stuff out by systematically gathering evidence and applying logic to it. (Or at least our respective academic versions are. I offer no defense of the Doctor Firstnames in your local bookstore.)

So it doesn’t make sense to try to determine who is more scientific. Instead, what differs is what we are trying to figure out — the phenomena we strive to understand. And here I think the other meaning of “hard” is useful.

What are the “hard” — as in difficult — problems in science? Hard problems in science are those that are embedded in complex systems; they are hard because to study something well you often need to isolate it from outside influences. Hard problems are those that vary by local conditions — science seeks to identify general laws, and when something is locally dependent, you need to sniff out the complex interactions that make it so. And hard problems are those that are difficult to quantify — science rests upon formalization and quantification, and you need to get traction at that initial step of quantification (i.e., measurement) before you can test theories. So… by these measures, if we are going to differentiate areas of science, the continuum of scientific problems should go from “hard” to “easy,” and psychology is clearly a science that deals with hard problems. Perhaps the hardest.

This was mostly intended as cheerleading to an audience of budding academic psychologists, revolving around a debatably clever pun. (I don’t really mean to suggest that physicists and chemists are picking the low-hanging fruit of the scientific disciplines. The low branches were picked clean centuries ago.) But the human mind is an amazingly complicated thing to study, which is what makes psychology so much fun.

8 thoughts on “Making progress in the hardest science

  1. Hey Sanjay,

    (This is Jon Adler, Dan McAdams’ former grad student. We’ve crossed paths at ARP and SPSP many times, but I’m not 100% sure you know who I am…).

    I just linked to your blog for the first time from your Facebook post on what you should speak about to the library staff. I had a hunch I knew what the title of the blog was supposed to mean, and this post confirmed it. I absolutely loved what you wrote here, and may use it in some of the classes I teach.

    As you may or may not know, I work at Olin College (, a new (founded in 1997) undergraduate engineering school in the suburbs of Boston. The college was founded with the largest grant in the history of higher ed with the idea of immediately founding a top-tier innovative undergraduate program in engineering. It is very small (~400 students) and the students all come for free, which allows us to be very selective (our acceptance rate is around 15%). I’m the only psychologist and my “department” is the department of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (there are 6 of us in the department). The great thing for me is that I don’t have to represent a psych department. I just teach small seminar classes designed to get the students thinking about “big ideas” they don’t encounter in the rest of the curriculum (and its a 1-2 teaching load, so I have plenty of time for research). (We’re also part of a consortium with Brandeis, Babson, and Wellesley, and I’ll be teaching in the Psych Dept at Wellesley this spring.) The point of explaining all that is to say that the #1 “big idea” I try to incorporate into every course I teach is what defines science. These brilliant engineering students often think of psychology as a “soft science,” and I often begin the semester with a debate called “The Soft Sciences are Harder than the Hard Sciences,” with the exact ideas you write about above.

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know that I think a huge part of my job is conveying exactly the idea at the heart of your blog’s title. Good luck with the talk to the library staff!

    All the best,

  2. Jon – thank you for the kind words! I think similar ideas have been in circulation among psychologists and philosophers of science for a while (Paul Meehl in particular comes to mind). I’m glad to hear you’re fighting the good fight with your students. A former UO grad student, now a professor at a SLAC, also talks about the hard-soft / hard-easy breakdown in her psych courses. One of her honors advisees made her a mug that said “Psychology, the Hardest F***ing Science,” which I totally hope to license someday when this blog makes me rich and famous.

    I’d be curious to hear more about how you cover this in your teaching. I got a positive response when I talked to an audience of psychology grad students, which was no big surprise. I’d imagine a classroom of engineering students might be a harder sell.

  3. I love the mug – I want one!

    In my courses one thing I sometimes do very early in the semester is run three mini-debates where I have assigned students randomly to different positions, like:
    1) The social sciences should be considered science
    2) The social sciences should not be considered science

    3) The soft sciences are harder (more difficult) than the hard sciences
    4) The soft sciences are easier than the hard sciences

    5) The soft sciences are more important to humanity’s future than the hard sciences
    6) The hard sciences are more important to humanity’s future than the soft sciences

    By randomly assigning students, no one feels that they have to truthfully portray their own position, only to advocate for their side as well as they can. We then debrief each min-debate and have large group discussion about the points. I take good notes and return to the major sticking points throughout the semester, using examples from the course content to re-hear the mini-debate. Each time I’ve done it, at least one student has failed to be convinced that psychology is a science (which, incidentally, I always interpret as a dogmatic denial of the evidence – a non-scientific approach!), but usually the majority of students agree that it is, and some even leave the course believing that it is actually more challenging than their engineering problems.

  4. I have recently found myself in the condescending eyes of a Chemist. He said that he doesn’t believe much in Psychology since everyone is different and therefore no universal generalizations can be made. I answered “Well, if we get to understand even just a specific population, and we get to help them, for me thats enough.” (I’m a soon to be Grad student of Clinical Psychology)

    Still, I felt his eyes roll at what I said. Regardless, Psychology is such a dynamic field. to have free-roam observational wisdom yet, have quantitative power. Thats why I’m in this field. :)

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