Some Thoughts on the Distinction between Protoscience and Modern Science

 In Building Knowledge, Words and Meanings

All modern sciences began as merely natural philosophy and gradually matured into the powerful, reliable, and vibrant disciplines that we have today.  I do want to identify the primary epistemic dimensions that are aspects of fully legitimate science.  I think we can differentiate between the protoscience of centuries ago and the mature science of today, but I’m searching for a word that better indicates the crux of this distinction than “modern”.  This distinction does not hinge upon the notion of new vs. old science.  Rather, this seems to come down to how refined the practice of science might be.  If a science is practiced with a clearly understood methodology and well-established practitioners who produce reliable results, perhaps then we could say it is systematic.  Such sciences are driven by a well-accepted standard model that features frameworks, theories, and paradigms.  On the other hand, if a so-called science (or natural philosophy) is practiced in an arbitrary, speculative, and makeshift manner then we can say it is proto, as in protoscience, proto-psychology, proto-chemistry, and even proto-phenomenology.  Some, but not all, protosciences develop into systematic sciences.  Cutting-edge developments in science, in which the methodology has not yet been clearly defined and where the paradigms are still under development, are protosciences.

Protosciences tend to be conducted more ad hoc, with experimental, observational, and interpretive processes conducted on the fly, whereas systematic sciences are more universally applicable to similar types of known phenomena and are reproducible, or at least are driven largely by some sort of reproducible processes.  Indeed, many sciences study phenomena that are not reproducible, but there has to be interpretive association with phenomena that are reproducible, and this has to be connected to the greater scientific knowledge base and explanatory scheme through consilience.  For example, astrophysics might involve the study of the formation of galaxies that occurred several billion years ago, but this study does rely in part on the repeatable observation of the slight movement of stars and planets.

The concept of protoscience is related to the notion of folk science, which refers to ways of understanding the world using common wisdom within a given culture and without the use of rigorous methodologies.  There is some conceptual overlap between these two, but we might say that protosciences are in the process of emerging into mature disciplines and are semi-sophisticated, whereas folk science is practiced in a rather ignorant and haphazard way by people who are oblivious to the ineffectiveness of its enterprise.

One central theme upon which this epistemic dimension hinges is the extent to which there is a coherent approach to understanding the subject matter in question.  In order to be systematic, a science would need to have a developed strategy that brings together the tactics for working toward high levels of mutual understanding and consensus.  If a science lacks such a strategy, which is usually takes the form of a rigorous and coherent methodology, then it is proto.

This epistemic dimension is also related to the distinction between so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences.  The hard/soft distinction in science has never been clearly defined and universally accepted, but we can say that the hard sciences are those that are systematic and quantitative, and the soft sciences are those that are proto and qualitative.  Physics and chemistry are the hardest of sciences, while sociology and economics are often thought of as soft sciences, with biology being mostly hard and psychology falling somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.  All of these sciences have been established as systematic, some more than others, but we can say that none of them are proto.

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