Repost: Hard Science for Hard Men - Language and Meaning

One more vintage TSZ for the day, to kick off your weekend in style. First published on 8/24/2005, Hard Science For Hard Men - Language and Meaning was another post written in response to a commenter.  In this case the commenter complained about my choice of Marie Curie rather than, say,  Barbara McClintock in a blog post. I found the comment hilarious. But you know, the kind of hilarious that is really sad. I think it's useful for scientists to re-examine their use of the terms "hard science" and "soft skills" especially now when President Obama has so frequently been attacked by the right as "soft". Read on.


One of my commenters recently asked whether Barbara McClintock's science was not "hard" enough for me - was this why I had chosen to discuss Marie Curie instead?  (As if there are only the two to chose from, and no other women scientists in the world.  And as if there is a "correct" choice that needed to be made by me.) 

So interesting, this particular usage of the word "hard".  One hears this often in science and engineering circles - physics is a "hard" science; engineers today need "soft" skills as well as the traditional "hard" skills.  All this hard and soft talk makes a girl wonder...

Well, I can do no better at the moment than quote from myself and Cynthia Burack's article, "Telling Stories About Engineering:  Group Dynamics and Resistance to Diversity" in NWSA Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 79-95. Here's some of what we had to say about this ubiquitous hard-obssession  in science and engineering land.

On the surface, hard refers to that which has mathematical content or involves the use of hands-on skill with technological equipment.  Soft refers to what is devoid [of these].  [But]...These uses of the modifiers hard and soft have no obvious connection to the skills they denote in engineering.  There is no strong intuitive connection between mathematics and "hardness" that those outside the science and engineering professions would make and that would affirm the usage as reflecting a common sense parallel.  However, connections between masculinity, virility, male sexuality, and hardness are culturally engrained, have unconscious emotional resonance, and are widely and immediately understood.  Likewise, the connection of softness with femininity...Neither are hard and soft understood as equivalent terms...hardness and softness are hierarchically ordered, with what is hard commanding greater respect and recognition than the soft.  It is no accident of language that enemy groups frequently express ridicule by describing each other as soft...The unspoken charge is of effeminacy - the de-sexing and degrading of men through metaphorical impotence.   

When my interrogator accused me of finding McClintock's science insufficiently hard, he used that term in a manner that has widely understood, shared - but implicit - cultural meaning.  Did I not think McClintock was man enough for me?  Was her science too effeminate, too flaccid?  Sigh.  Zuska thinks there are many, many wonderful things to be said about Barbara McClintock's fascinating work, but "hard" is not one of the words she would use.  But then, Zuska has never worried about whether she could get it up. 

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