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All science is either physics or stamp collecting.
Ernest Rutherford

Many "hard" Science Fiction authors, trained as they are in the hard sciences, tend to take digs at the softer sciences in their works. The reasons for this vary, but the most common criticism is that it's much harder to perform repeatable experiments. Scientists strive towards empiricism and the "scientific method", and many humanities or social sciences are trying to study things that cannot easily be studied strictly and subjected to experimentation, which makes writers feel justified in considering them as "pseudoscience".

Of course, the experimentation is not the only way to go, but having models derived only from limited set of data without verifying its predictions later is looked down at as an empty theology. In this context the astronomy is fine, but cosmology is basically myth covered by senseless mathematics.

This happens outside of science fiction as well. Often, scientist characters in non-Science Fiction shows will disrespect the softer sciences when they have to deal with them. In real life, common targets are Psychology (see below), Psychiatry (often portrayed as the medical equivalent of the Church of Happyology), Economics ("The Dismal Science"), and certain aspects of Linguistics. Some can have a grudging respect for economics and political science, the two that tell if they will get any money for rockets and particle accelerators, but psychology, sociology and the like are Acceptable Targets.

Think of it as an interdisciplinary Take That. How much the rivalry is Serious Business, and how much friendly banter, depends on the people involved. It's still an influential conflict that not only has spawned new theories and schools, but became a full blown "war" during the 90's. The standard comeback from soft scientists is that their subject is more "applicable" or more relevant to life and society at large (e.g.: as hit and miss as psychology can be, we're a long way from seeing a neurological or even pharmacological solution to mood disorders). Another reason why science fiction writers love to return the favor by taking potshots at people in the humanities is because literary critics usually don't take science fiction seriously.

A related phenomenon is "hard science" and business students criticizing subjects like Literary Criticism and Philosophy for being more Wild Mass Guessing and having little utility in careers outside the academic world. This overlooks actual, legitimate philosophies that adults can also make use of (like for example, studying logic and reasoning), and of course, how in Real Life businesses prefer candidates who bring different perspectives and ways of thinking to their jobs.

Also see All Psychology Is Freudian, which also contributes to how psychology became such a target - psychoanalysis is blatantly unscientific navel-gazing, but because it was one of psychology's most vocal minorities, the "psychologists sitting in couches charging 200 bucks to talk about your mom" stereotype became a Never Live It Down. Modern types of psychology, such as behaviourism, cognitive science and neuroscience, are a lot harder yet just as practical. In this case, calling Freudians quacks would work, but Skinner's experiments have been repeatedly verified. However, the history of scams, the possible lack of ethics - see these experiments, the Bedlam House, and behaviourism's possibility of abuse - and "pop psychology" in general still haven't liberated it from being an acceptable target.

Can invoke a Romanticism Versus Enlightenment-like conflict (in this case, the hard sciences form the Enlightenment). For anti-intellectualism by non-intellectuals, see Science Is Bad and Science Is Wrong. See MD Envy and Not That Kind of Doctor, which can be related.

Not related to erections in any way. Well almost.

Examples of Hard on Soft Science include:


  • There's an old joke where the dean of a college complains how much the various science departments are costing the college. The chemistry department needs test tubes and bunsen burners, the physics department needs particle accelerators and Tesla coils, the astronomy department needs telescopes, etc.. He says, "Why can't they be more like the Mathematics classes? They only need paper and a wastebasket. And the Philosophy department is even cheaper; they don't even need the wastebasket!"
  • Q: What did the <insert choice of Butt Monkey field here> major say to the <insert any "practical" or "hard" science here> major?
    A: "Would you like fries with that?"


  • In Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, a few intellectuals met by the computer scientist protagonist are insufferable idiots with little grip on reality. Then again, his grandfather had a very poor grip on reality, and he was also a computer scientist.
  • The statistician narrator in Stanisław Lem's His Master's Voice pejoratively calls the group of linguists, psychologists, "pleiographers" etc. "elves".
  • Inverted in Stephen King's The Stand. Not only is hard science bad, but one of the heroes is a sociologist.
  • In Starship Troopers, Heinlein goes on at length about how flawed 20th century psychology was/is. However Future!Psychology teaches nothing but "hard truths"... by the math department.

 If it can't be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion.

  • Discussed and subverted in Michael Crichton's Sphere. One of the Jerkass physicists asks what somebody from such a useless field as psychology is doing on the mission. The psychologist protagonist points out (perhaps only to himself, it's been a while) what terrible people skills the average physicist has. It turns out the psychologist is the only one mentally stable enough to handle the nigh-omnipotence the title sphere gives without killing everyone.
    • Also discussed in another Crichton novel, Timeline, where there is an even starker contrast as it's between a physicist and a historian. Perhaps deconstructed, since the physicist protagonist solves problems in the present, while the historians solve problems in the past.
    • For an MD and a Scientist, Crichton spent an awful lot of time writing against type. e.g. Jurassic Park.
  • Shows up repeatedly in the works of Greg Egan; most notably in Schild's Ladder
  • This is played straight as a central trope of That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis — one of the protagonists and most of our villains are sociologist-types. It goes so far that Values Dissonance rams this book into Poe's Law.
    • One minor character is an eminent chemist. He has a brief conversation with the (currently bamboozled) sociologist protagonist: Sociologist: "I can quite understand that it [the villains' scheme] doesn't fit in with your work as it does with sciences like Sociology, but--" Chemist: "There are no sciences like Sociology." The chemist is then murdered by the villains, the sociologist framed for the murder, and blackmailed into running propaganda for them. Lewis's objection to sociology (within the book, at least) was that it, like the other soft sciences, invites the scientist to treat people as specimens, without compassion. His chemist says, "I happen to believe that you can't study men; you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing."
  • Averted with Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Hari Seldon is (posthumously) considered to be one of the most brilliant scientists in the history of the Galaxy, and his work in psychohistory is considered not only seminal but absolutely necessary for the survival of civilization. While psychohistory is presented as a mathematical science, it is still considered to be a branch of psychology, a "soft" science.

Live Action Television

  • In Bones, Temperance Brennan takes constant digs at psychology, saying it's unscientific...this despite constantly being proven wrong, or using principles from it herself (with bizarre justifications about how it's not psychology), or even the obvious effectiveness of psychological profiler Dr. Sweets. This is frequently lampshaded by other characters.
    • This behavior was actually the subject of a Take That in an episode where Booth and Bones head to a mental hospital where Bones makes pointed remarks to the head psychologist there. Eventually after a while of this the psychologist finally gets sick of this and points out that while her expertise in the dead is all well and dandy, he's using his training to help 'living people' who desperately need it, soft science or not.
  • On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon (a theoretical physicist) is often belittling engineers (like Howard) even calling them "the Oompah-Loompahs of science" once. Of course, Sheldon tends to belittle anyone who doesn't live up to his lofty standards (i.e., everyone else), including his other friends Raj (an astrophysicist) and Leonard (a particle physicist).
    • Sheldon also fell victim to a more literal version of this trope when he briefly comments on the inaccuracy of the social sciences in the episode "The Friendship Algorithm", while he presents Penny with his "friendship questionnaire". He wasn't happy about doing one, as in his view the social sciences are 'largely hokum', but saw no alternative. Sheldon even botches the methodology: no social scientist in his or her right mind would expect a respondent to handle a 200-question exam.
    • Leonard's parents (a neurologist and an anthropologist) apparently only used sex in their relationship for reproduction, and both wrote papers on it. His mother visits and discusses this with Sheldon, pointing out that because her paper was from a neurological standpoint means it was the only one worth reading, to which Sheldon promptly agrees.
    • In the episode where Sheldon has to give a speech, one of his opening jokes is at the expense of a geologist, which he (drunkenly) follows with 'I joke with the geologists, but it's only because I have no respect for their field.' This one is interesting because of the fact that geology is a hard science.
      • As is neurobiology, Amy Farrah Fowler's field which Sheldon is condescending toward, leading to their 'breakup' and Sheldon's purchasing 25 cats. Most of the evidence suggests that Sheldon just thinks all other scientists (or for that matter, all other humans) and their work are innately inferior to him and his work.
      • Sheldon's hatred of geology has become a running gag.
    • Interestingly, Sheldon usually takes linguistics very seriously even though it is considered one of the "soft" sciences, often pointing phonetically correct ways to say the words he's written (and pointing to the word written in the international phonetic alphabet).
    • He took it pretty badly when another physicist made fun of his own specialty this way, though.
  • In Stargate Atlantis, an early episode has McKay claim that medicine is more akin to voodoo than real science. This while said "voodoo" is being used to administer a gene therapy which will allow him to use Ancient technology.
    • To be fair, McKay was actually pointing out that Medicine is voodoo to HIM, because he can't understand it. It just feels like he is belittling the entire profession because... well... he's McKay.


Video Games

  • In Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, the Prime Minister (a former scientist) it talked into taking part in a scientific demonstration after the demonstrator brings up how he abandoned the hard sciences for politics.

Web Comic


 Scientist: I told the Baron, give me a thousand orphans, a hedge maze, and enough cheese, and I can...


Web Original

Real Life

  • The Sokal hoax was a Take That from a physics professor to postmodernist social studies academics. Sokal sent a paper of pure drivel which would embarrass a second year physics students, but wrote it so it agreed with the political and social views of the journal Social Text. Sokal's paper (in brief - the real paper contains more nonsense than can be discussed here) argued that a properly free mathematics would free us from the social constructs which are implied by our rigid, unyielding, dogmatic, anti-feminist, capitalist, and unjust theory of gravity. Of course, they did publish it of their own free will...
  • Real scientists engage in this to varying degrees, though mostly it tends to be light natured ribbing between colleagues. Especially given that actually annoying the other fields means they won't be able to ask that department for help when something comes up in their work that they can't answer on their own.
    • Played very straight by the same scientists, physicians, and skeptics towards a great deal of New Age beliefs, which the scientifically-minded do not consider legitimate fields at all. To draw the distinction: a historian or a philosopher does not necessarily follow the scientific method at all, but they are still held to very rigorous scrutiny by their peers and academic honesty is demanded of them. Most scientists respect such academics and it's all well-meaning ribbing between colleagues. An astrologer, however, cannot and does not seek peer review, academic appraisal, or to test their beliefs against evidence in a controlled experiment. Whatever one's personal beliefs, the reason so many scientists are active in the skeptical movement is obvious.