What is Science?

I originally wanted to start the “Science” category with a short series of posts discussing some very basic introductory concepts to serve as a baseline/reference for future discussion.  However, I happened to be in the middle of some great research involving the helical motion of the solar system, so I chose to grab the fire while it was burning and go ahead with that article first.

So, stepping back a bit to address the basics . . .

 

What is Science?  (the basics)

This seems like a stupid rhetorical question – What is Science?  Doesn’t everyone know the definition of science?  I would like to believe so, but I can’t be too sure.  If the Science Council realized they needed to come up with a definition in 2009 there apparently is a reason it was needed.  I’ve personally been confused to a great extent over the years in clearly understanding the differences for a hypothesis vs. a theory vs. a scientific law.

My desire to define science is to establish a baseline of understanding for future discussion around good vs. bad science, what science should or shouldn’t address, etc.

There are numerous elements and terms of science that can cause confusion:  the Scientific Method, Hypothesis, Theory, Law, Certainty, Truth, Falsifiability, etc.  So let’s address each one briefly but in enough detail to serve as a base for future understanding.

 

General Definition of Science

Here is one of the better definitions I found from the University of Georgia, Dept. of Geology:

Science is the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions.

There are a wide variety of definitions for science, but the one above seems to be the most well-rounded.   In reading various definitions there are some common elements among them all:  study and explanation of the natural world; observation; experimentation; empiricism; peer-review; publication in scientific journals; revisions due to new evidence; etc.

 

Types (or Branches) of Science

Scientific disciplines can be grouped together as follows – Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Formal Sciences, and although not technically “science” most people see the results of it in our lives via Applied Sciences.  (source)

  • Natural sciences – The study of the material universe and natural phenomena. This category is empirical, meaning it’s based on observation and allows testing for validity.  Some fields included are:
    • Physics
    • Chemistry
    • Oceanography
    • Geology
    • Astronomy
    • Biology
    • Zoology
    • Botany
  • Social sciences – The study of people and societies.  It is also empirical and includes:
    • Anthropology
    • Archaeology
    • Economics
    • Psychology
    • Political Science
    • Sociology
    • Theology
    • Linguistics
    • Geography
    • History
  • Formal sciences – The study of mathematics and logic. It doesn’t depend on empirical observations and includes:
    • Logic
    • Mathematics
    • Systems Theory
    • Decision Theory
    • Statistics
  • Applied sciences – Technically not science but instead uses the results of science.  It includes:
    • Engineering
    • Medicine
    • Computer Science
    • Applied Mathematics
    • Applied Physics

 

Empirical

Based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.  (source)

 

The Scientific Method

A method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.  (source)

or

Principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.  (source)

There seems to be much debate about the Scientific Method and it’s use/variation across all sciences.  I’ll probably address those in a future article, but in the meantime here’s a list that shows the normally accepted steps as taught to most students.  (source)

  1. Observe – Make observations
  2. Question – Ask a question or identify a problem
  3. Research – Search for existing answers or solutions
  4. Hypothesize – Formulate a hypothesis
  5. Experiment – Design and perform an experiment
  6. Test Hypothesis – Accept or reject hypothesis
  7. Draw Conclusions – Make conclusions based on the hypothesis
  8. Report – Share your results

 

 

Scientific fact

In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation, in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts.   (source)

 

Hypothesis

A hypothesis is a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.   (source)

A testable proposition explaining the occurrence of a phenomenon or phenomena, often asserted as a conjecture to guide further investigation. Your prediction is a hypothesis.   (source)

For a hypothesis to be termed a scientific hypothesis, it has to be something that can be supported or refuted through carefully crafted experimentation or observation.  (source)

 

Theory

A coherent set of propositions that explain a class of phenomena, that are supported by extensive factual evidence, and that may be used for prediction of future observations. Theories draw on a huge number of facts.   (source)

A scientific theory is empirical and is always open to falsification if new evidence is presented. That is, no theory is ever considered strictly certain as science accepts the concept of fallibilism.”  “Theories vary in the extent to which they have been tested and verified, as well as their acceptance in the scientific community.  (source)

For a hypothesis to become a theory, rigorous testing must occur, typically across multiple disciplines by separate groups of scientists. . . .  In science a theory is the framework for observations and facts. . . . A scientific hypothesis is the initial building block in the scientific method. Many describe it as an “educated guess,” based on prior knowledge and observation. While this is true, the definition can be expanded. A hypothesis also includes an explanation of why the guess may be correct.   (source)

 

Scientific Law

A scientific law is a statement based on repeated experimental observations that describes some aspects of the universe. A scientific law always applies under the same conditions, and implies that there is a causal relationship involving its elements.  (source)

Natural law – a term rarely used today. Nineteenth-century science presumed that it could arrive at immutable, absolutely true, universal statements about nature, and these were to be “natural laws.” These should be treated as theories rather than absolute law.  (source)

Laws are generally considered to be without exception, though some laws have been modified over time after further testing found discrepancies.  (source)

 

Is Science about Absolute Truth?

The University of Georgia site has several notable statements about scientific truth and certainty:

Science does not presently, and probably never can, give statements of absolute eternal truth – it only provides theories. We know that those theories will probably be refined in the future, and some of them may even be discarded in favor of theories that make more sense in light of data generated by future scientists. However, our present theories are our best available explanations of the world. (source)

Science isn’t Truth and it isn’t certainty.  Some people assume that scientists have generated a body of knowledge that is sure to be true. Some ideas, after all, are known with enough certainty that most of us take them for granted.  However, no human has observed the solar system and seen the earth traveling in an orbit around the sun. And most scientists will concede that, although they seek Truth, they don’t know or generate Truth. They propose and test theories, knowing that future evidence may cause refinement, revision, or even rejection of today’s theories.  (source)

Ask a scientist about an issue that’s not directly observable: “The evidence suggests that . . .”, or “Our current understanding is . . .”.  This shows a reasoned recognition that we can’t know many things with absolute certainty – we only know the observable evidence. However, we can reach the best possible conclusions based on the most complete and modern evidence available.   (source)

Scientists should not make any statement about absolute truth. No scientist thinking about what he or she is saying will answer with that degree of certainty, regardless of the evidence available to them, nor will they lay that kind of claim to Truth. They may have a high level of confidence if there’s abundant evidence, but they won’t claim absolute Truth or absolute certainty.   (source)

It’s worth remembering that a person’s admission of uncertainty doesn’t mean they’re wrong, whether the issue is in politics, economics, religion or science. In fact, a person who admits some uncertainty in their thinking is often closer to the truth, or at least understands the issues better, than someone who claims absolute certainty. Shouting loudest does not generate truth.   (source)

Some other applicable entries from the University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley:

The knowledge that is built by science is always open to question and revision. No scientific idea is ever once-and-for-all “proved.” Why not? Science is constantly seeking new evidence, which could reveal problems with our current understandings. Ideas that we fully accept today may be rejected or modified in light of new evidence discovered tomorrow.  (source)

… coming up with a fruitful idea to explain a previously anomalous observation frequently leads to new expectations and areas of research. So, in a sense, the more we know, the more we know what we don’t yet know. As our knowledge expands, so too does our awareness of what we don’t yet understand.  (source)

 

Falsifiability

Falsifiability or refutability of a statement, hypothesis, or theory is the inherent possibility that it can be proven false. A statement is called falsifiable if it is possible to conceive of an observation or an argument which negates the statement in question. In this sense, falsify is synonymous with nullify, meaning to invalidate or “show to be false. (source)

It’s thought that one of the parameters of the Scientific Method should include an attempt at falsifiability.

No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.  – Albert Einstein [reportedly . . . and paraphrased]  (source)

 

Peer Review

Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people of similar competence to the producers of the work (peers). It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards of quality, improve performance, and provide credibility. In academia, scholarly peer review is often used to determine an academic paper’s suitability for publication.  (source)

Science isn’t considered as part of the “body of knowledge” until a peer review is conducted and a paper published in a scientific journal.

 

Limits of Science

Science isn’t technology.  Science doesn’t make things.  Scientists are in the business of generating knowledge. Engineers are in the business of generating technology. Science often leads to technology, and it often uses technology, but it isn’t technology and in fact can operate quite independently of technology.  (source)

Science can only answer in terms of natural phenomena and natural processes.  Science doesn’t make moral judgments. Science doesn’t make aesthetic judgments.  Science doesn’t tell you how to use scientific knowledge. Science doesn’t draw conclusions about supernatural explanations.  (source)

 

Funding

I think it’s also important to understand:

Research is funded through a competitive process run by government, corporations or foundations.  . . .  Government provides the bulk of the funds for basic scientific research.  (source)

As much as we might want to envision science as an entirely noble pursuit of pure knowledge, there are numerous political and human aspects that must be considered in the process – including the source of money that employs the scientific community’s specific areas of research, study and experimentation.  Scientists aren’t paid to pursue their ultimate desires unless/if they are funded to do so.

 

Wonder and Awe!

How incredible that in the 500+ years of science (200+ years of systematized methodology) that we’ve derived an incredible number of exciting theories to define nature and the universe we live in!  The discoveries made help man to move from ignorant darkness to the light of knowledge.  We live in an exciting time with much knowledge refinement left to discover.

 

Summary

Some nice quotes of relevance for this and future discussions:

“The fuel on which science runs is ignorance. Science is like a hungry furnace that must be fed logs from the forests of ignorance that surrounds us. In the process, the clearing that we call knowledge expands, but the more it expands, the longer its perimeter and the more ignorance comes into view . . .  A true scientist is bored by knowledge; it is the assault on ignorance that motivates him – the mysteries that previous discoveries have revealed. The forest is more interesting than the clearing.” – Matt Ridley  (source)

“Science alone of all subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation . . . As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” – Richard Feynman  (source)

“I think that we shall have to get accustomed to the idea that we must not look upon science as a “body of knowledge,” but rather as a system of hypotheses, or as a system of guesses or anticipations that in principle cannot be justified, but with which we work as long as they stand up to tests, and of which we are never justified in saying that we know they are “true”… – Karl R. Popper  (source)

“Scientific knowledge “consists in the search for truth,” but it is not the search for certainty . . . All human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain.” – Karl Popper  (source)

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” – Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, Book 1, v, 8  (source)

 

As with any sourcing on the internet, links can go ‘dead’ after a time. If you find the above-mentioned links no longer working, try the WayBack Machine:  http://archive.org/web/web.php    It’s sometimes a good way to pull up and view websites that are no longer active.

 

 

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