What is Science?

Just before the turn  of the century, I participated in a Usenet discussion newsgroup, talk.origins, that is dedicated to discussing origins, both cosmological and, mostly, of our species. Since the scientific explanation of the origin of our species is evolutionary biology, much of the discussion is take up between those who hold to science and those who don’t. Many of the later, and a surprising number of the former, appear not to know what science is. From that observation was born an attempt to develop a FAQ for talk.origins called “What is Science?”

I drifted away from the discussion having not addressed all of the concerns of the keepers of the talk.origins web site, most notably, having not addressed the relationship between science and religion further. Here I resurrect that document, do some word smithing and present it for discussion.

What is science?

Science is a term that describes three things:

  • The history of the human curiosity about how the universe operates.
  • A wide range of methods used to observe, describe, predict, and explain the measurable interactions of the observable universe.
  • The body of knowledge gained by using those methods.

What is the scientific method?

Although much has been made of the scientific method, there is not a single method, Scientific methods overlap those of other human endeavors, and few, if any, scientists are concerned with all areas of science.

Scientists at various times engage in observation, description, prediction, and explanation. A scientific method is a method of performing those four tasks in such a way as to be objective and accurate. Different subject matter requires somewhat different methods.

It is not unusual to lump together the methods of observation and description under the heading of experiment and the methods of prediction and explanation under the heading of theory, although this division is problematic.

What makes a method scientific?

The principle contribution of science to the human quest for knowledge is in objectifying the four categories of method.

An objective approach to knowledge is one in which two observers using the same methods will arrive at the same knowledge, since the knowledge depends only on the observation and not on the observer. Clearly there are no purely objective methods, although scientific methods strive to be as objective as humanly possible.

The idea of independently repeating an experiment to show that the observation is objective is useful, especially in laboratory sciences, but taken alone, it only guarantees that two scientists arrived at the same result. It does not guarantee that the experiment itself is valid.

To reduced the risk of performing bad experiments, scientists describe their experimental procedures to other scientists, who look for errors in the approach. The formal method of doing this is by publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals.

How is science made objective?

Science has objectified the quest for knowledge, in principle, through the application of quantification. To the extent that it can be measured it can be made objective.

Can you sum up scientific method, again, please?

The literature on scientific method, then, can be seen as a discussion of the ways in which scientists attempt to objectify the four activities of science:

  • Observation: through the use of precise measurements, careful experimental design and control, and repeatability. Observation is the basis of science.
  • Description: through the use of comparison to objective standards, most notably, again, measurements. Descriptions are built upon observations.
  • Prediction: through the use of mathematical description of interactions coupled with the design of experiments intended to test predictions. Predictions are attempts to generalize descriptions so that they may be extrapolated to new situations.
  • Explanation: through the use of peer-review and the demand that explanations account for all known observations and make falsifiable predictions that allow them to be differentiated from other explanations.

How do various scientific methods differ?

Some branches of science can rely on laboratory experiments more easily than others, or have more control over the experiments they perform. Physics, for example, can more often do its experiments in a controlled lab, than can anthropology. Some branches can rely more on quantitative descriptions while others rely more on qualitative descriptions. The same is true for predictions.

How does science add to our knowledge?

The branch of philosophy that concerns itself with how we obtain knowledge is called epistemology. One of the concerns of epistemology is determining whether a particular method of obtaining knowledge can obtain certainty by giving us absolute assurance of the truth of the knowledge.

Science does not provide such certainty because it would be be necessary to have observed everything over all time to be able to completely describe all knowledge. To the extent that scientific knowledge is incomplete it must remain uncertain. This is true of any program that wants to be scientific.

The resulting epistemology of western science is similar to the  empirical pragmatism of William James but with a much narrower focus. This philosophy is grounded in the understanding that all scientific knowledge is provisional knowledge and that any scientific knowledge may be rendered obsolete by a future observation. It recognizes that, in order to make any progress at all, science must take as given certain assumptions that can not be validated, but that have been very reliable for a long time, and so, will be used until they are invalidated.

Some key aspects of this epistemology are

  • Objectivity: [needs a good, short, definition]
  • Reductionism: the belief that problems can sometimes be subdivided into smaller problems and the larger problem’s solution can be discovered by solving the smaller problems in turn.
  • Scientific Induction: the belief that a sufficient number of observations of similarity can be used to generalize.
  • Extrapolation: the belief that certain observations that have been true in the past will remain true in the future.

Each of these beliefs has served science well, and each is constantly tested against the known observations.

What is the difference between a theory and a fact?

In science, a fact is an observation or series of observations, or a description of a series of observations. Facts are answers to ‘what is’ kinds of questions, and are the part of science that can be the most objective. A theory is an attempt to explain known facts and usually involves predictions about future observations. Theories are answers to ‘how does’ kinds of questions.

What is the role of falsifiability?

Consider a theory that makes a prediction. By testing such a prediction, we can determine if the theory is accurate or not. A theory that makes testable predictions is said to be falsifiable. It is common among scientists to accept as scientific only those theories that are falsifiable in this sense.

What is the difference between a theory and a law?

A law in science is an empirical relationship between measurable quantities. Newton’s “aw of gravity is such an formulation. Laws often hold only in special cases. Laws are often descriptions. A theory is an attempt to explain and predict. Theories often incorporate laws.

But what about the scientists?

A significant source of confusion in discussions of the philosophy and history of science is to intermix the sociology of scientists with the epistemological method of science. Scientists are humans and suffer from all of the strengths and weaknesses of humans, and so the quest for scientific knowledge has a very human history. But scientific epistemology, which is the theory that results from the practice of science, is an abstraction of human though rather than a sequence of human actions.

Is science a religion?

No. However, many people have made a religion out of a certain set of believes in what science can and can not do. To those people, the use of science has taken a religious role.

Is science the only epistemology necessary?

No. Science tells us what we can do with the universe, it can not tell us what we should do.

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