Softer, easier, less technical subjects: the ones about algorithmically sophisticated self-replicating nano-machinery-based robots with human-level intelligence that were constructed using selection effects, and their elaborate game theoretic interactions. e.g. sociology, economics, psychology, biology.
Harder, more difficult, more technical subjects: the ones about numbers, shapes, simple substances, rocks, making and moving macro-objects, algorithms. e.g. math, physics, chemistry, geology, engineering, computer science.
Why are the easy subjects about super-complicated, hard to understand things and the hard subjects about relatively simple things?
The first theory that comes to mind (perhaps because I’ve heard it before) is that the ‘easy’ subjects are just too hard. Nobody can get anywhere in them, which does two things. It means those subjects don’t accrue any hard-to-learn infrastructure of concepts and theories. And it completely undermines their use as a costly signal of ability to get somewhere in a subject. This leaves these subjects disproportionately popular among people who wouldn’t have been able to send that particular signal in any case, and empty of difficult concepts and theories. Worse, once the capable people leave, the body of useful science grows even more slowly and interest in the subject becomes a worse signal of competence.
Or less cynically, the capable people reasonably go to subjects that are feasible to make progress on, where they can contribute social value.
At any rate, the easy subjects are seen as hard because they have more sophisticated science, and are full of impressive people. They are hard to play at a socially acceptable level, because the frontier is more sophisticated and the competition is stiff.
On this theory, in ancient times rocket science was probably left up to the least capable members of the tribe, while pointy stick science was the place for impressive technical expertise. Which sounds pretty plausible to me.
I’m not sure if this theory really makes sense of the evidence. The kinds of subjects that are too hopeless for a capable person to perceptibly outperform a fool in are the ones like ‘detailed turbulence prediction’. People do actually make progress in soft sciences, and it would be surprising to me if those people were not disproportionately capable. It might be that the characteristic scale of progress is smaller relative to the characteristic scale of noise, so a capable person can less surely show their virtue. But it is less clear that that generally aligns with subjects being harder. For instance, if you need a certain level of (skill + luck) to find breakthroughs, and breakthroughs become harder to find, then more skilled people would at least sometimes be at an advantage.
Another explanation is that everyone feels like they understand subjects relating to humans much more than they feel like they understand physics, because (as humans) human-related things come up a lot for them, so they have relevant intuitions and concepts. These intuitions may or may not constitute high quality theories, and these concepts may or may not be the most useful. However they do make soft subjects look simple and feel understandable.
I have heard this theory before, but I think mostly as an explanation by social scientists for why people are annoying. If it also explains why the hard sciences are easy, that would nicely simplify things.
Are there other good theories?