Can any science really be soft?

25 Apr

When I worked as a reporter there were two types of news: hard news and soft news.

The hard news reporters covered things that not only had immediate impact, but had numbers to back up the importance. These stories — crimes, disasters, accidents, fires, etc. — zoomed to the front page. The soft news reporters, who covered features and human interest beats, typically had their stories inserted into the inner reaches of the feature sections, or they waited patiently for the Sunday edition to get more exposure.

I won’t lie. Hard news reporters had a little more swagger in the newsroom.

However, that doesn’t mean that feature writers didn’t work just as hard and it doesn’t mean that feature stories had less of an impact than those front page pieces. In some cases, it’s often the contrary. Human interest stories motivate and influence people in ways that hard news stories can’t.

Part of my “beat” as a science writer at Penn State leads me to cover what some folks refer to as “soft science,” as opposed to the hard physical and biological sciences. Social science seems to be a more welcome term by those researchers in the field, I should point out.

Granted, the hard scientists, like those hard news beat reporters, have lots of numbers and statistics to back up their empirical research.

But, social scientists, I’m finding, are just as committed to their work and just as exacting in their pursuit of their research.

Recently I chatted with Shaheed Nick Mohammed, associate professor of communications, Penn State Altoona, about his book, “The (Dis)information Age: The Persistence of Ignorance” (Peter Lang Publishing, 2012).

The researcher wanted to investigate claims that more information and more tools to access information naturally leads to smarter, more tolerant citizens–that’s a theme of the Information Age.

According to Mohammed, that’s not necessarily the case. He found numerous examples of too much information and too many news-acquiring tools leading to misinformation or disinformation.

He was quick to point out that his book was not based on empirical evidence. But, with a quick look at the reference section of the book and listening to Mohammed explain his research, the study sounded just as grueling as any “hard” science study. He reviewed hundreds of books and journals, read and documented articles, and watched hours of footage and newscasts.

We’re talking hours and hours.

And this type of commitment and tenacity isn’t uncommon for researchers in the social sciences, based on my work at Penn State.

So, I think it’s good to clarify that when we talk about science and research, “soft” has nothing to do with amount or the complexity of work when we investigate cultures, people and societies.

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