The Generalist

In fact, ALL sciences are HARD

What exactly does it mean to be a “soft science”? Over the holidays I got into a discussion with a relative about just this topic. Economics, he told me, is a “soft” science, unlike physics which is a “hard” science. What exactly is the difference?

The word “science” itself is a somewhat fuzzy term. It can be defined as any form of rational inquiry, but it can also be used to describe a particular type of rational inquiry, that of inductive reasoning – i.e., the scientific method. For the purposes of my article, I would like to define science as any form of rational inquiry. Why will become clear a little later on.

So now, having defined that, we can ask the question, what is a “soft” science?

The idea of a “soft” science is, of course, even fuzzier. When people use the term they rarely know what they are trying to say. In the end, the term usually evokes a list of what the person believes are soft sciences and a definition has to be obtained by working backwards and figuring out what they all have in common. A “soft” science is almost always a science that is impacted in some way by human motives, aspirations, and emotions. The list usually looks something like this (depending on what the person includes in the term “science”):


And of course, all the sciences that deal with human motives and emotions rarely predict anything and are subject to endless debate. It is assumed that the topics are either too complex – as is the case with economics – or that they are relative to whatever opinion you might hold – as is the case with all branches of philosophy. This is not a coincidence. People have powerful motives to obfuscate and confuse both themselves and others with regard to these topics and the reason for that is obvious.

Professional magicians usually belong to organizations to which they must declare an oath not to reveal the techniques used to create the magician’s illusions. The idea is that if people knew how the tricks were done, they would cease to be entertained by them, thereby putting the magician as a professional out of business. In the same way, professional manipulators wish to keep their techniques a secret. They discover their techniques by way of the “social sciences” or those sciences that deal with human motivation and happiness. How can they keep the average person from discovering these techniques themselves and thereby becoming impervious to further manipulation? They must ensure that these sciences remain “soft,” i.e., subject to endless debate.

If that sounds like some grand conspiracy, well it is. But then most people happily approve, although the reason they do so is, at least in part, because of what they have been taught about these sciences from they time they were children. When I was much younger, in high school, I was traumatized by a boy who was very religious. At that time I was very confused. I had been taught a variety of religious ideas which frankly horrified me. I was literally afraid to inspect them because to my mind it would just be too terrible if they turned out to be true and given that my elders – people I trusted – had told me these things in the first place, I suspected they would turn out to be true. This fear paralyzed me, though thankfully only for a short time. But, it is in this state of denial and fear that most people live and for this reason, the “soft science” easily endures.

There are a number of methods used to keep sciences “soft.” The most important is the equivocation or “fuzzy word” – words like “soft science” for instance! Ensuring that people never properly define terms will keep them endlessly going over the same ground. Fuzzy words can also shift meaning over time, so they can be easily manipulated. Words like liberty, freedom, democracy, left, right, liberal, and conservative, are just a few examples. These words have different meanings at different times in history. (I’ll come back to these in later posts.) For this reason whenever you are discussing anything that comes from a “soft science” I recommend that you demand precise definitions for the meanings of the words you are using. Then watch what happens. The arguments will simply fall apart.

Countless other fallacies are also used – much too many to mention here – but there are a lot of great internet sites that list and explain them. Study the logical fallacies. When you are able to point out exactly what a person is doing to confuse you, it gives you tremendous power. The task of a manipulator is to confuse and hide. Stating the method of abuse bluntly will almost always stop him in his tracks.

Now with reference to economics in particular – another type of fallacious thinking is used. Above I defined science in a very broad way as any type of rational inquiry. I am defining it this way because there are two types of reasoning – induction and deduction. Together these are two sides of the same coin – the reasoning process.

Induction is what we are doing when we observe many concretes and attempt to connect them conceptually so that we can make general statements about them. Those concepts can then be used as premises for a later round of deduction. Deduction works in the opposite direction – we already have the premises (or axioms) and are using them to reason forward, or “deduce” something, either about something else or about the outcome of a chain of events.

All sciences use both of these processes. The scientific method, however, is an inductive process – we are testing things in the concrete world and attempting to make general statements from those tests. This confuses people into thinking that science as a whole is only induction. This is simply untrue. But, while all sciences must use both types of reasoning, some sciences rely more heavily on deductive reasoning than inductive and vice versa. The reason for the different weighting has to do with the amount of knowledge necessary to that field which is axiomatic, i.e., irreducible.

Mathematics, for example, is mainly a deductive science. In fact, it is probably the science that is closest to pure deduction. No one needs to do experiments to discover the pythagorean theorem. Instead, they do proofs, which illustrate the deduction process step by step. (Some people get hung up on this and start trying to reduce ALL science to mathematics – this is another mistake.) But even mathematics requires some level of experience – one must, after all, at least be conscious of the existence of numbers and to have grasped conceptually geometric figures. (Conceptualization is an inductive process by the way – we see many concrete versions of a 4 sided object and “induce” the concept of a rectangle.) Once this conceptualization is complete, we can build upon it, abstracting further via deduction. Why is mathematics almost completely deductive?

The reason is because mathematics is a very simple science, only a few basic axioms or premises are necessary, and they are all known. Physics adds another level of complexity and therefore requires induction to discover the premises upon which it is based. Once those premises are accepted, a new round of deduction takes place, incorporating all the premises and deductive reasoning that went into mathematics, too. Physics is still relatively simple. Moving on to chemistry, the level of complexity grows. A new round of induction is necessary to discover yet another level of conceptual knowledge, from which further deduction progresses.

So whether a science more commonly uses induction or deduction is dependent on how much we already known principally (or axiomatically).

Economics is a prime example of a science that is mainly DEDUCTIVE. The principles are already known, and are mostly in fact, axiomatic. What confuses people with regard to economics is that prices involve the use of numbers. That looks like data to people – data that they would want to collect and use in experiments. But it is a very different type of data. The data one collects in a biology experiment contains constants – i.e., numbers that are applicable to another place and time. Price data is what I call incidental. It applies only to one place and one time and one set of circumstances. It cannot be used as a basis for any general knowledge about economics. An example of an incidental would be if by chance a meteorite hit the planet earth and wiped out half of human life and property. This occurrence would have a massive impact on the economy, wiping out billions of dollars worth of accumulated wealth, but would be entirely incidental to the science of economics.

The idea of “econometrics” is a wonderful tool, therefore, by which to obfuscate the “soft”science of economics. Those who practice it focus on the study of incidentals and ignore completely the essentials of economics – the axioms from which it is deducible.

As a side note, statistics can sometimes be used to make predictions about market moves – that’s why we look at charts – but this is quite a different pursuit from the discovery of  economic truths. The difference is something like the discovering biological truths via the science of biology and applying them through the science of medicine.

Remember, ALL sciences are HARD. There is no debate about it – the truth is the truth and the consequences are the consequences, whether or not people are willing to see them. There is no reason, however, why YOU have to be fooled.

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