I’ve had a rollicking good time this week. It’s been up, and down, and spiraled around in several circles with abrupt vector changes that have left me gasping with the pressure. I like metaphors. They are very easy to manipulate within the constricts of the language to attempt to get a point across. And as my son pointed out again last night, manipulation is not always negative: it can be beneficial like a massage kneading out the knots and kinks that build up over the day and week and month while we hunch and bunch up over our various tasks…whatever those may be. Some people have tasks that are larger than others, like managing an office of people doing other tasks. Others manage an office of tiny terrors called toddlers and their office is a day care. Others manage an office of infirm people who cannot communicate their needs well, and their office is a nursing home. Oh, the varieties of what humans do every day.
My office is my home. It takes an awful lot to keep it functioning. I never knew it would take so much agonising, tedious work to keep a small household of four functioning in our regular schmegular world when I was a regular schmegular (I thought) girl growing up in the 1970s and 80s. I was conditioned to believe it would all be so easy, so casually passé. That old laissez-faire principle gone wild that led to Reaganomics. So now I am burdened with so many overblown laws that have been made to counter the laws the corporations made to exploit the loopholes a simple system had, that most of my time is simply wasted. And everyone knows this. I don’t have to go into detail about how many hours every day I spend on hold trying to figure out what went wrong on the phone bill, or how to advocate for myself. Lots of wasted time there and everyone knows how stupid it is. Everyone knows the beautiful simple free market system would be exploited by basic human greed and someone would pay down the line, and that down the line is apparently now. Of course people like me, the ground floor people, have been saying that for centuries as the cogs of the machine grind us into dust, but in our current society and culture we have an extremely unique concoction bubbling in the retort. Because humanity right now is not a bunch of separate tribes bubbling away in their own little crucibles of transformation one at a time, all of humanity is doing it at the same time, both separately and together via the incredible transformative technology of the internet and global communications media networks. And it is happening faster and faster. If I, a middle-aged woman who has survived a devastatingly traumatic childhood (worse than almost anyone else I have ever met), shelved a Navy career to raise two kids to adulthood and succeeded at that and is now launching her own small business while navigating one disaster after another can notice that…I bet a ton of other people are noticing it as well.
I know scientists are. All sorts of scientists are, and they are getting plenty of attention. Some people are trying to get more people to pay attention to them and some people are trying to shut them up. I am one of those people trying to get people to pay attention to them, and this post is about shedding some light on the different kinds of science all of us science nerds are talking about. Because “science” covers a lot of area, and some people get distracted by pseudoscience, which is ALMOST science but fails in some pretty crucial areas, and needs to be tossed into the faith bin. There is nothing wrong with faith when you team it up with science; praying while you go through chemo is known to have beneficial benefits because you, the patient, are putting yourself in a certain mindset. Psychology has terms for this. (If you want to read a really interesting synopsis of a study on prayer and medicine, here’s an NIH abstract from 2009). Psychology the SCIENCE. But then, we’re getting into some grey area here. And that grey area is what I am trying to clear up, by explaining the difference between hard science and soft science. Feel free to argue to your heart’s content about this; that’s another branch of science called philosophy, which is a soft science. So if you wish to debate soft science and hard science, just be aware that you will actually be doing a scientific action. I may have actually done my entire post in this paragraph.
I started this blog as a meandering outlet to talk about my thoughts while I write my book; since that book is the story of my completely messed-up life, writing it is not exactly fun, or nice, or comfy. I get all itchy inside when I hammer out chunks of it. Having a place to share my thoughts on how I can revisit those scenes and not go mad is pretty helpful. Being able to scientifically analyse how and why those things happened to me, and why my parents did them, keeps me sane…plain and simple. I have and had a lot of help getting to this point, and make no bones about it: I am humbled beyond belief to those people, and eternally grateful to the roots of my being. And they know who they are. And if they don’t, writing my book is a way to let them know. And it still will never be enough. Unless the reader has been to that absolute edge and stared the darkness in the face and lived to tell the tale, they will not understand what I say. It is a common human trait among those who have, though. And those of us who have will keep going. I keep going by discovering how it all happened, so I can stop it…and so far so good. It has been years now since any bad stuff happened, and only progress has been made. Solid steady progress, and although some physical crap has come up it is apparently common with people in my trauma demographic and age group so I keep using science to help me along. So far I have a pretty outstanding track record among health care professionals. I wish my insurance company adored me as much. Maybe if insurance companies used more accurate scientific models they would work better.
As usual, I digress. I got my love of science from sperm donor, which is one of Fate’s particular ironies. The man who would incessantly torture me in one form or another my entire life for embracing science and being empowered by it, who works in a science field himself, introduced me to science and all its glories. I don’t even remember when or how, he was always pushing science on me. He broke my brain when I was about six by telling me the Universe never ended, and was in fact still expanding RIGHT AT THAT VERY MOMENT. I just wigged out and slammed shut the science text he was showing me wicked hard and screamed something about how that was not possible because it would not fit in my head. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to picture something THAT NEVER ENDED, and I absolutely could not. All I saw was blackness, and my mind snapped and all I could hear was him saying “It just keeps expanding, it’s ok, it will never run out, it goes on, and on, and on…”, and he was chuckling while I was sobbing. Probably my first mental breakdown and he was laughing at me. I think I fell asleep in the corner there, because I blacked out.
But I still positively love science, and everything about it. Even the stupendously terrifying idea of a never-ending Universe that both speeds up and slows down at the same time, and entropy, and dark matter and things we have no answer for. That spooky element utterly fascinates me, because we just DO NOT KNOW. The fact that there are still unknown frontiers should excite us beyond endurance, not terrify us beyond belief. God could be waiting out there in that dark matter; if God exists, God gave us the tools to go find God. The messages we need to seek, to find, to not to yield…they are all over the place, and our fear is causing us to destroy them before we can fully decipher all they have to teach us.
The definition of hard science is a science that deals with things that can be observed and measured. There are examples such as chemistry, physics, biology, geology and astronomy. The definition of soft science is more ambiguous. It is a science that deals with things that are intangible so they must be quantified by a more “group mind” study based on collected and correlated data from multiple sources. Examples include psychology, sociology, anthropology, and most archaeology. And you can get deeper and deeper into various specialties and subspecialties. Overlap is very important. Both sciences follow the scientific method as their guiding principle. This is very important, because we are talking Science here. In this article, just published, a case is made that the terms hard and soft science are archaic and offensive. Perhaps in academia they are searching for a new term, but among laypeople and the general public folks don’t even realise that the study of history is part of sociology and that sociology is a science. Sorry, Dr. Helmenstine, until our national education system gets out of the grip of people like DeVos and we have a federal core curriculum so our states do not have to waste time and money arguing over the basic right to teach reproductive science and sex education practicality to our students (read this for the latest on Colorado’s efforts on that, but it might make your heart feel bad).
I really do love teaching other people about the different subtleties between these types of sciences, because I get to talk about my favourite scientist of all. Galileo.
I seriously love Galileo. And he kind of started this whole science-ball-rolling-thing. Of course not by himself, and he wasn’t like the first scientist or anything. But the threads of this great tapestry of Fate all came together around him at just the right time for Galileo Galilei to be the beginning of a scientific explosion. He came up with the germ of the idea for the scientific method. His questions and incessant probing of the envelope in a society that most certainly DID NOT LIKE envelope-probing created a counter-culture that caused incredible discoveries in a way that simply could not be stopped. And because he was such a GOOD man, a faithful man, the energetic catalyst of Galileo the phenomenon was scientific in itself; he confirmed his germ of an idea (the scientific method) in his very existence and impact on history and society, and somehow what he accomplished gave birth to multiple scientific fields. Gods bless Galileo. He is the perfect example to explain soft and hard science, and how they are both separate things and the exact same thing, both. That’s some sciencey stuff there, too: dialectics. No one can argue that Galileo was a pre-eminent scientist, even if he was using terribly crude instruments, a heretic, an alcoholic and addicted to food and women and probably bipolar to boot. He did not exactly live in a society known for it’s social graces or stellar mental health care. Nevertheless he somehow managed to be a decent fellow in spite of glaring flaws, and present humanity with absolutely magical science. He died destitute and broken because his church betrayed him, but he was still science-ing away, humble and loved by everyone around him…forgiving of most of those who had wronged him. Not a bad role model, don’t you think?
Apparently this hangs some people up, though, because they get stuck in black and white thinking too much. Black and white thinking is a concept of behavioural therapy, specifically cognitive behavioural therapy. Now I am talking soft science lingo, particularly psychology. Some people may start jumping up and down and say I have no right to use these words because I do not have a degree in psychology or any of it’s associated sciences (and there are a lot of them: if you consult the almighty Google, and type in psychology associated sciences, you will fall down a deep well of associated search chains after discovering exactly what you can do with a basic psychology degree…or just an overview of the field itself). Most people who get fussy because a layperson uses big words gets that way because they distrust academia anyway as an “institution of liberalism” or some such blather, which is a sort of untrustworthy logic. I was always told that if I did not understand a word or subject to go look it up in the dictionary or the set of encyclopedias we had in our living room, a wedding gift my parents had received and was toted all over the world with us. I was the only one I ever saw use them. They smelled funny. Since I was not permitted to actually go to college, and I did not figure this out until I was a sophomore in high school (I should have been allowed to graduate as a junior, but I was rocking the boat with my career choices, so college was denied me), I decided to be a punkrocker and tell my parents to fuck off. They still haven’t forgiven me for standing up for myself, even when I had to join the military anyway to save my life. Because I gave THAT up to raise kids. What a loser I am. It is so obvious I am mentally derelict, isn’t it? That’s what you get for standing up for yourself and your love of science and believing in yourself. I wanted to be a marine biologist, you see. Study the big cetaceans, specifically. And write on the side. But that was simply impossible. I was supposed to study math and economics and become a prodigy of the stock market using Reaganomics so I could manipulate the poor and minorities, which I had been trained to do my entire life by a white supremacist horror-show monster in disguise, and take care of HIM with my ill-gotten gains. My entire childhood I had been told that everything that was done for me was not for free. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” sperm donor would say as I handed him his balony-and-cheese on Wonder Bread (with extra mustard), and two cold Coors beers. Always two, because the first one went down in about thirty seconds. I would get lectures on how because he took such good care of me and my mom, I would be expected to take care of him in return once I grew up and had a life of my own. Sometimes he would tell me that no matter where I was, he would always be able to know where I was. Whether I was happy or not, whether I had forgotten him or not, and my dues would come. Because I was his blood and blood always came due. So when sperm donor told me that I would absolutely NOT be going to college unless it was for economics, and that it was so I could care for him so he could retire, and then beat me senseless with a garden hose, I knew I might as well give up in high school. Who on earth wants to be a slave like that for the rest of their life? My education is not formal; it is learned through experience because the only one who would teach me was myself. The only one who would stand up for me was myself, and sometimes I ended up doing that from the streets or a jail cell.
But I am not anyone’s slave, and science helps us rescue people like me every day. I have a very difficult time with actual math, but the way mathematicians use that amazing fluid science to work in both hard and soft science thrills me. Math is the device humans use to do the actual measuring. Sir Issac Newton is another of my favourite scientists because he was able to take some really arcane ancient math from the Greeks and transform it into modern math in a completely new way. Both he and Leibniz did the same exact thing at virtually the same exact time, and personally I think that is a miracle. It blows my mind. While Leibniz was a bit of a more mellow kind of guy and wanted to collaborate with Newton, Newton was a nutter. Personally I think almost all mad geniuses like Galileo and Newton and Hooke (he is so cool…weird, but cool) were probably bipolar II or clinically depressed. Most of their biographies describe classic manic-depressive cycles. Newton had them BAD. And in his manic states he would do seriously insane maths. If he had been properly treated and supported, I bet he and Leibniz would have done some really scary-amazing things together. But alas, the webs of Fate did not weave that way. Maybe another timeline saw it did happen, and in that part of the multiverse crazy things are happening. Somebody should write a story about that.
And what I just wrote is an example of hard science, believe it or not. It’s called theoretical physics. Those scientists are so crazy smart I cannot even follow what they talk about because it hurts my brain. I turn back into that six year old who has just been told the universe is continually expanding, and want to have another breakdown. I once made a Dungeons and Dragons character that was a complete asshole. But I loved him to death. He was a sort of comic relief to the party, but one of those comic reliefs that could become stupidly annoying and if you didn’t shut him up your character might shut him up permanently. Not very good for crew morale in the long run. In case you have never played DnD, crew morale is very important. It is exactly like any other combat unit, only your units don’t actually exist. Unless you have a cute little painted miniature, but in this story I did not. I had a sketch I think, but I am not an artist so it was probably terribly bad. In DnD you and your fellow gamers are basically writing a story together on the fly. It is all ad lib except for what your Dungeon Master has written, which is Super Seekrit, so it is also like you are doing one of those Mystery Plays. And whatever random factor dice rolls throw in (the best part, actually, because it forces you to adapt and do on the spot critical thinking and maths in your head really fast). Oh, and the constricts of the rules. Back in the day the rules were weird. We had THACO. Only go there if you really want to know, because it might break your brain like the universe did a certain six year old. Do NOT ASK ME why I am bad at math. It is so hard for me to break that block. So my asshole character needed a quick save disarm for his smarmy mouth. I told my friends that apparently he had been cursed by some cranky wizard in a blue box who whispered “quantum physics” to him and waved a device at him that sent him into catatonic shock one day and he sat there for a whole week before anyone could get him to come out of it, and ever since then if anyone whispers “quantum physics”, he will just get very…very…very quiet and slink away muttering strange and cryptic things to himself and twitching occasionally. Theoretical physics can explain black holes and dark matter. Eventually. We get closer and closer to knowing What’s Out There every day. Because those scientists with the math do the math and explain it to those of us without the math. If you don’t understand that, ask someone with the math to explain it to you until you understand because I don’t know how to make you understand.
When it comes to getting people to open up and perceive how much we need soft science, it’s like trying to break them out of catatonia. Or like prying open a pressurized container. People are shut down or sealed up for a reason. Soft sciences have been working diligently to find and point out those reasons. When I make commentary on a post or an article about a gun law or sex education law being debated, that is using data collected by one organisation or another, or is quoting statistics from a health service or polling data taken from a state office, I point out that this is scientific data and am laughed at or demanded I show burden of proof. People who use the term “burden of proof” do not understand what science is, or how science is broken down into scientific fields and where the fields get their data. Or how long it takes to correlate that data. A sociologist in Minnesota studying toddler deaths by gun violence within the past year, trying to sort out how many of those deaths happened by accident because the toddler gained access to the gun themselves, and how many of those deaths happened through deliberate violence, will need to take some time to sift through the data. I recently linked to the Colorado annual report on domestic violence deaths in our state. Our hypothetical sociologist in Minnesota would need to locate and download that report, and reports like it, from each state to compile her study. She would also need to locate and compile reports from each state about OTHER toddler gun deaths, because a good scientist gathers as much data from as many sources as possible, to cross-check as many times as possible. That is how sociology works, and it is a science that takes time and effort because good science works that way; you only get out of it what you put into it. Remember the old adage from early programming days: Garbage In, Garbage Out. Scientists learned a long time ago that if you fudge data your results will be garbage and you won’t be able to repeat your experiment. And if the experiment cannot be repeated, everyone will mock you for ETERNITY. Hence Galileo and his everlasting legacy.
Seems we have a recent uproar in our culture about something like that…something to do with vaccines. A doctor fudged his studies on vaccines and autism decades ago and now we are having massive outbreaks of childhood illnesses we almost eradicated from the globe because of PSUEDOSCIENCE. Remember I said there is nothing wrong with praying while you are sick? Well, there is something extremely wrong with believing in something so hard you turn your back on science so well-established and proven that you will harm your children. Children are innocent and cannot protect themselves. Some parents take this so far that they allow their children to die terrible painful deaths because they believe some ephemeral force will save them, when a valid medical procedure, often a simple one, will save them easily. Even if you believe in a deity, you must believe that they blessed us with brains and intelligence and the gifts that intelligence bestows to solve our own problems. And to help and nurture those who cannot help themselves. And most especially, when those who have been proven to have lied about their science, let that be a harsh and stern lesson going forward. Vaccines do not cause autism. And autism is not a defect at any rate; it is a neurodivergent state that some brains have. A spectrum of brain function science is working diligently to understand, and parents and caretakers that adapt to the state of being of their autistic people find that they are just…people, after all. Challenging like all people, frustrating at times, yes. But also delightful and funny and charming. Like all people. The neurodivergent state of the autistic person is similar in several ways as that of the PTSD survivor, or the person with Down’s Syndrome. Or even a person with Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s or another neurologically degenerative disease. And soft sciences, working together with more hard sciences like chemistry, have helped us understand this. Brains are weird. The organ itself is not completely understood. And we cannot understand it if we, regular people, are not cooperative in the efforts of science in understanding it.
Right now the great majority of people are just teeming along being angry about anything and everything, and not taking the time to think about why they are. And when someone comes along and says “try to think of it this way,” the reaction is usually “who are you to tell me that?” But the simple answer is, “I’m a person like you, that’s all. And I pay attention to what bothers me, so I figure some form of it bothers you. Just think about it, and maybe you will figure out a way to not be so angry.” Most of the time people think I am a bitchy snob, because they are too busy being angry to hear what I just said. That is their problem. They haven’t figured out the first step of the scientific method yet.
And the first step in the scientific method is the first step in any twelve step program. Whether that program is AA or a secular one, it’s the same. Because when Bill S. started the program, he was using cognitive behavioural techniques without realising it. When a therapist told me that once, it blew my mind. I started giggling and couldn’t stop for a minute. That philosophy, that tenet, is strong in addiction medicine. And it works, it works really well. I might be one of those strange people who can defeat inner demons, but I sure don’t feel like it a lot of the time. I just use tools. A lot of tools. I stand on the shoulders of giants, who taught me a simple method that works. Imminently adaptable yet unavoidably points to the truth, hard or soft, the scientific method lets me be both a witch and a hard-ass scientist. It won’t let me lie to myself, and it is there so my support personnel won’t let anyone else lie to me either. Quite a handy safety net when you know that sometimes your own brain is a tricky motherfucker and the lies it tells when you’re at your weakest get through all the defenses you’ve learned to put up against them.