What is Science?

 In Building Knowledge

Over the past few centuries, science has allowed us to have an increasingly detailed understanding of reality. This has been possible, in large part, because of the body of techniques, philosophical beliefs, and social structures that constitute science and the scientific method. Science is also one of the most dominant forces in our global society, for better or worse. Steven Goldman gave this assessment of the relation between science and society in his lecture Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How they Know It.  The following is paraphrased from a portion of this lecture:

We especially who do not understand the theory, how shall we accept the claim by the scientific community that these theories are true? This is very important to us, the general public, for a number of reasons, not least because science matters in our society. Scientific knowledge matters in our society. Because science works in some quite obvious and practical way. Because over the last 200 years especially, science and science-based technologies and also the technologies that became entangled with science…became the source of the wealth and power. This includes commercial power, military power, social power, and political power. Science has become deeply entrenched in government institutions, commercial institutions, and social institutions. There is a public perception that science is very important. Science is deeply entrenched in our society and therefore it matters how we act toward scientific knowledge and how we assess scientific knowledge.

We can summarize this by saying that science is really powerful in our world and our society gives a lot of social prestige to science, but it’s important that we understand some broad outlines of how science works. It is better that we understand what science is and how it is practiced rather than just uncritically assuming that science is exactly as it ought to be and does not need any further scrutiny on the part of the layman.

We should scrutinize science, but we should be educated enough to do so with appropriate precision, so that we avoid indiscriminate and unreasonable attacks on the practice of legitimate and reasonable scientific studies. Some people have broad suspicion and hostility to science because they do not understand how it works.  In some cases, these sentiments are motivated by people not liking the findings and conclusions that have come out of scientific studies, often for political and/or economic reasons.  The motivation to dismiss scientific theories and conclusions is therefore not driven by evidence nor reason, but by prejudice.  We see this happen even in situations where there is an abundance of evidence in favor of scientific conclusions that some people find inconvenient.  We see scientific theories being viciously attacked, even when the evidence in favor of them is overabundant to the point where they are essentially proven to be accurate, for all intents and purposes. Those who attack science are often successful in propagating this overarching sense of suspicion because not enough people actually understand the processes of science, scientific discovery, and scientific reasoning.

There is also a separate phenomenon, rivaling the aforementioned in irrationality, wherein a lot of people just uncritically assume that science is always correct and accurate and that scientists are infallible experts in their field.  Indeed, some people have these sort of beliefs, almost dogmatically, even though this isn’t always the case.  Scientists are human and are sometimes wrong.  We might even say that most scientific findings are inconclusive and subject to possible future revisions.  Even the most solid scientific conclusions are sometimes found to be inaccurate as the result of subsequent studies.  Some philosophers of science, such as Thomas Kuhn, have even argued that all scientific conclusions and theories are in a certain amount of flux because they are tied to the prevailing paradigms used by scientists, which will inevitably change over time as scientists rethink their prior approaches and underlying assumptions.

There is also the question of what is science and what sorts of disciplines, methods, and processes can appropriately be called “scientific”.  The definition of science itself and how to differentiate between science and non-science is a controversial matter, even among experts.  A good definition of “science” is the system of methods for the study of the universe through empirical observation and reason that includes ongoing efforts to better understand reality through critical thinking. There are numerous definitions of science that one can access from various sources, but any definition that comes from a mainstream source should be similar in principle (but perhaps not in wording) to the definition provided here. Any theories and methodologies that do not come close to meeting the broad criteria outlined in this definition and yet whose practitioners prefer to label them as “science” or “scientific” are probably not deserving of these labels.

As these words, along with “scientist”, carry social significance and some degree of prestige, it would make sense to be somewhat generous, rather than exclusionary, in their application.  So long as the discipline in question is in keeping with this definition, it would probably be some form of science, in the broad sense. Some people unfortunately have too narrow of a conception of science so that they only think a discipline is a true science if it is strictly quantitative and if the findings are entirely reproducible. Such sentiment is inappropriate because science is actually quite diverse, and it includes the physical and also the social sciences.  The latter of these often don’t operate on hard, reproducible data, but are nonetheless scientific. There are different methodologies of science, but any reasonable methodology needs to be based on some fundamental empirical principles.

It is important to understand what is meant by this definition. First, in the sense that we are using the term here, science is a system of methods, not a set of facts. In some cases, the word “science” is taken to mean a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject, but herein we are more interested in science as a method (or family of related methods) rather than as a body of knowledge. Therefore, in the sense of this word that is our main focus, we can acknowledge that facts are often known with the aid of science, but this does not mean that facts are scientific per se.

We can also say that any science is a type of episteme, which is the general word for any principled system of understanding. A lot of epistemes are completely unscientific, and so it is useful to understand what attributes differentiate epistemes and what features they must have in order to truly be scientific. Science is an empirical episteme because the arguments and conclusions produced within any science would have to succeed or fail on the basis of some sort of observations. We can differentiate this with disciplines such as philosophy and mathematics, which are a priori epistemes because the arguments and conclusions therein succeed or fail based on analytic reasoning.

Another important attribute of science is that it must involve critical thinking and the use of systematic procedures with the aim of bias minimization. Some people might use the word “objective”, and indeed science should be as objective as possible if we want to understand mind-independent reality and avoid bias as much as possible, but the concept of objectivity is a rather complex matter that should be examined in more detail. This is because the mind is something worth studying scientifically and it is not entirely possible to approach such studies in a completely mind-independent way. The notion of objectivity and its relation to science will be analyzed in future posts. For now, we will say that science should aim for objectivity, but we will avoid saying that all sciences must be objective.

It is also important to note that science is essentially epistemological, which means that its foundation lies in a completely separate branch of philosophy from anything involving intrinsic values or aesthetics or morals. Epistemology is driven by accuracy and understanding, not values. This can be confusing for some people because science and value can be related. Science, and other areas of epistemology, can produce knowledge, which can have instrumental value. For something to have instrumental value means for it to work towards things that have intrinsic value. Eventually, we would like to develop a science or perhaps a science-like discipline that would help us understand the reality of which intrinsic values are an integral aspect and upon which morality can be derived. In future posts, we will attempt to formulate such a science.

Science is a very diverse field and there are numerous ways that science can be conducted. There are multiple scientific methodologies that are different in important respects and that are used for different purposes, but there are certain aspects that are universal or nearly universal to all of them, as recognized by the scientific community and by philosophers of science. The scientific method is an iterative and cyclical process through which information is continually revised and through which conclusions can be refined. The following elements, in varying combinations and in varying degrees, are generally recognized as the core means of developing advances in scientific knowledge :
• Characterizations: These are observations, definitions, and measurements of the subject of inquiry.
• Hypotheses: These are reasoned guesses and explanations of observations and measurements of the subject.
• Predictions: These are expected future results and derived from the hypothesis through some form of reasoning.
• Experiments: These are real-world tests of the given characterizations, hypotheses, and predictions.

Each element of the scientific method is supposed to be subject to peer review for possible errors. There is no scientific method that is perfectly defined. Even with a well-defined method, the practice of science still requires intelligence, imagination, and creativity. In light of this, science is not a mindless set of standards and procedures to follow, but is more accurately characterized as an ongoing cycle, which is constantly developing more useful, accurate, and comprehensive models and methods.

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