MadSci Network: Science History

Re: What is Science

Date: Tue Feb 17 11:00:18 1998
Posted By: Dan Berger, Faculty Chemistry/Science, Bluffton College
Area of science: Science History
ID: 885509884.Sh

>What is Science?

I can see why I found this in the "unanswered questions" queue. If all the words written to answer this question were laid end to end, you probably still wouldn't get a straight answer. But I'm gonna try anyhow...

Probably the most concise definition of science is

Science is what scientists do.
This is not an evasive answer. In fact, Michael Polanyi, who was a successful physical chemist, defined science as a guild in which masters train apprentices to the point that an apprentice is able to phrase and pursue scientific problems on her/his own. What qualifies as a scientifically interesting problem is then defined by the judgement of practicing scientists. Science is a social construction of scientists, who jealously guard the perceived accuracy of each others' results by constant questioning and correction.

One important criterion is that work be reproducible: others should be able to get the same results given the same procedures. But this is not always possible: perhaps someone (like an animal behaviorist or an astronomer) has recorded a rare event; or, something which appeared in my own work, perhaps a technique is difficult enough that others need expert coaching to reproduce it. And some work is not seen (by the larger community) as important enough to replicate. Time is finite, but of making many [experiments] there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. -- Ecclesiastes 2:12

A good introduction to Polanyi's analysis of the scientific process may be found in the little book Science, Faith and Society, which is a series of three lectures Polanyi gave in 1946. It's about 100 pages long, and while a junior high school student may find it a little difficult, I think it is well and clearly written.

I would caution you that Polanyi's ideas have been distorted beyond recognition by the more extreme post-modernists, who contend that, because all human knowledge is socially constructed, none of it can have any claim to truth. As long as it's "true for you," it's perfectly OK to claim, without evidence, that the ancient Egyptians built airplanes. No scientist -- not Polanyi, nor Thomas Kuhn, another favorite of post-modernists -- would claim such rubbish.

But what is it that scientists do?
The central effort of the scientist was defined by the 18th-Century botanist Ste phen Hales:
Since we are assured that the all-wise Creator has observed the most exact proportions of number, weight and measure in the make of all things, the most likely way therefore to get any insight into the nature of those parts of the Creation which come within our observation must in all reason be to number, weigh and measure.
And, crudely speaking, that's what scientists do: number, weigh and measure. In fact, one need not even be a genius to be a good scientist as long as one understands one's field and is willing to do the patient drudgework of measurement.
Where one man of supreme genius has invented a method, a thousand lesser men can apply it.
-- Bertrand Russell

But don't scientists make theories about what they find?
Certainly. Theory is the forging of knowledge into understanding, and has be seen as a prosaic process. Einstein said the whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking, and John Polkinghorne has said that his career as a theoretical subatomic physicist was a matter of trying desperately to keep up with experimental results.

Theory has its skeptics, and not everyone thinks its conclusions are always valid; as Karl Popper said, Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification.

Someone whom I cannot remember divided scientists into synthesizers, who try to find the common core which explains a variety of facts, and the diversifiers, who take joy from uncovering more and more complex processes. Synthesizers tend to be theorists, and diversifiers experimentalists. Probably the best statement of the diversifiers' point of view was found in Science a while back, in a news story about the discovery of a new subatomic particle predicted by theory:

It was nice to find the confirmation of this process. But it would have been even better to have found something totally unexpected, so that the theorists would have had to go back and work harder.
-- paraphrase of an experimental physicist

So what is it scientists believe?
Scientists are people of simple faith in the intelligibility of the universe, as Vannevar Bush saw.
"Science has a simple faith, which transcends utility... that it is the privilege of man to learn to understand, and that this is his mission."

Science can be lifted onto such a pedestal that it is seen as the supreme activity of humanity and its only source of truth; this is the basis of logical positivism (here's another view), and of much modern materialism and atheism.

A warning against the deification of science was given by Wyndham Lewis:

When we say "science" we can either mean any manipulation of the inventive and organizing power of the human intellect: or we can mean ... the religion of science, the vulgarized derivative from this pure activity manipulated by a sort of priestcraft into a great religious and political weapon.

While some scientists take this inflated view of scientific knowledge, most of them are more humble. For example, Duke University biologist Matt Cartmill recently wrote in Discover magazine,

If biologists don't want to see the theory of evolution evicted from public schools because of its religious content, they need to accept the limitations of science and stop trying to draw vast, cosmic conclusions from the plain facts of evolution. Humility isn't just a cardinal virtue in Christian doctrine; it's also a virtue in the practice of science.
(emphasis added)

So what's the point of science, anyhow?
Scientists love their calling; it's one of the few professions in which you can be paid for having fun. Francis S. Collins, who heads the Human Genome Project, says that
"When something new is revealed ... I experience a feeling of awe at the realization that humanity now knows something only God knew before."
Others go further: Steven Weinberg has written,
"The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy."

Many utilitarian answers have been given to the question of "what good is it anyhow?" Few can doubt the importance of technology ("applied science") in their lives, and science is often justified because of the technology it can lead to. Louis Pasteur pointed out that

There does not exist a category of science to which one can give the name applied science. There are science and the applications of science, bound together as the fruit of the tree which bears it.
But more importantly, science is one of the human arts, in which the first qualification is to see the world with wonder in your soul. To paraphrase Sir Walter Scott,
Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never unto himself hath said,
Wow! This is really neat stuff!

-- cribbed from The Lay of the Last Minstrel
The scientist lives, even more than the artist,
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
William Blake (1757-1827), Auguries of Innocence
Dan Berger
Bluffton College

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