The difference between a sociologist and a geologist, the “soft” and “hard” sciences

Comments about sociology can come from anywhere. See this example from a House member discussing FDA guidelines:

The most intense reaction was generated by a provision offered by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) that would block the FDA from issuing rules or guidance unless its decisions are based on “hard science” rather than “cost and consumer behavior.” The amendment would prevent the FDA from restricting a substance unless it caused greater harm to health than a product not containing the substance.

“The FDA is starting to use soft sciences in some considerations in the promulgation of its rules,” said Rehberg, who defined “hard science”, as “perceived as being more scientific, rigorous and accurate” than behavioral and social sciences.

“I hate to try and define the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist, between a sociologist and a geologist, but there is clearly a difference,” he told the committee.

Three sets of comparisons are made here: between psychology and psychiatry, sociology and geology, and “hard” and “soft” science. I think it is pretty easy to make the first two distinctions, particularly between geology and sociology. But the third comparison seems a little strange: does Rehberg want to suggest that soft sciences are less true or that they matter less/are less valid for FDA decision making?

Overall, it sounds like Rehberg is suggesting that the “soft” sciences (psychology and sociology) are not as important in crafting FDA policies as the actual science that says whether certain products are good or bad for humans. But it seems somewhat silly to suggest that perceptions and behaviors shouldn’t influence policy decisions. A lot of legislation is driven by perceptions and values in addition to the actual influences in the physical world. Think about some of the major issues being discussed today such as the deficit or taxes: less of the conversation is about the actual impact on the country and more involves ideologies about who should be responsible for funding the government and what is the proper role and/or size of the government. One of the problems presented in this article is instructive: cigarettes are not illegal and yet government bodies are interested in limiting the consumption of them. Therefore, while menthol cigarettes may not be that much more harmful, if it is attractive to younger kids who then take smoking, why not regulate this? Of course, the smoking example is a loaded one and it would be hard to find someone who would suggest more smoking among teenagers is a good thing.

Based on this discussion, would either political party be willing to create legislation only based on “hard science” or is this only a suggestion when the “hard science” supports one’s existing viewpoint? Additionally, are there politicians out there who have publicly supported sociology rather than suggested it is a “soft” science?

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