Bronze-level articleScience

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Philosophy of science

Compound Microscope 1876.JPG
The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.
—Neil deGrasse Tyson[1]

Science is the system of acquiring knowledge through use of the scientific method — that is, generating hypotheses and theories through observation and testing. Science is intimately linked with technology; technology is developed using scientific discoveries and science is reliant on technology to further its ideas. The goals of science are to learn more about the world and use this knowledge for the betterment of humankind, or for the destruction of mankind, whichever comes first.

The term "science" originally referred to knowledge in general. However, it has been evolved to refer primarily to the natural sciences — the study of the natural world and the fundamental laws of nature — biology, chemistry, physics, etc. In its original usage, fields such as theology were called 'sciences', which seems strange to people only familiar with its contemporary usage. To make it even more confusing, science was originally derived from "natural philosophy". Science is generally distinguished from the humanities — the study of human history and human literature — although, the social sciences and psychology straddle the boundary to some extent.


[edit] Categorizing science

Science is divided into broad fields used to categorize the phenomenon being studied, such as biology, chemistry, geology etc. Each of these broader fields is then broken up into finer and finer sub-fields.

The two broadest categorizations of science are physical ("hard") and social ("soft"). Physical science deals with the physical world and allows for repeatable controlled experiments; physics with its study of light, heat, force, and energy, and specializations such as electric field are all physical sciences.

Social science on the other hand studies human behavior; anthropology and written history are social sciences. In contrast to physical sciences, social sciences are prone to suffer from observer bias where preconceived belief drive the investigation and interpretation. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to apply the process of "repeatable controlled experiments" to the "soft" sciences.

Some fields (such as archeology) use a mixture of physical and social science.

The question of what does and what does not count as science is known as the demarcation problem. What is not science but often claims to be can generally be found in RationalWiki's pseudoscience category.

[edit] Success

Science is sometimes very simple; the fact that one of these flasks turned slightly cloudy led to one of the best examples of evolution in action.

Science has been the most spectacularly successful method humankind has invented for the investigation of the material world. As has been mentioned previously, technology and technological advancement is reliant on science; science has produced drugs that cure diseases, the cultivation and distribution of an enormous variety of food, communications and transportation methods that allow us to make contact with others across the world with ease, and computers that have vastly increased our ability to collect, store and analyze information. Less obvious things that come from science are things like ballpoint pens, insulated houses, flushing toilets and the materials and dyes used in modern clothing. By its nature science seeks to form cohesive explanatory frameworks for any information, without clearly drawn limits; this makes it pesky and irritating to those who would prefer that science would just stop at some arbitrary point so they can comfortably maintain anti-science beliefs and practices.

[edit] Newton's Dark Legacy and the misunderstanding of Mach and Miner

Newton developed the first post Renaissance view on how the universe worked but it also created a serious problem regarding how science was and is viewed by the public. Newton's concept of the universe was essentially clockwork and created the view in the public's mind (and in many scientists) that science was seeking some form of truth with each new discovery clarifying the understanding of this truth.

Ernst Mach came up with a view similar to that of Immanuel Kant--science creates structures to explain and predict how the world works. The theories and laws that come out of Science are not any form of truth but merely models of how the universe is thought to operate and when repeatable observations that conflict with these models are found the models are either refined or replaced with different models.

Horace Miner went even further with his deeply sarcastic 1956 Body Ritual among the Nacirema paper[2] which used the then popular model of looking at primitive peoples believing in magic and how we were so much better than them with our science and showed how the very model being used could deeply influence observations and therefore conclusions derived from those observations. Out of this and similar papers came the idea of "emic" (internal) vs "etic" (external) views of the world in anthropology.

However both these new ways of looking at the universe threw out Newton's clockwork model--not only was there no truth out there but the new models replacing Newton didn't even have comforting certainty but rather used probabilities that something would happen. Newton's model may have been cold and uncaring but at least it was predictable and now even that was gone. It wasn't long before the concepts of Mach and Miner were used as part of Anti-science views with the reasoning (such as it is) being that if all science does is create models of how the universe is thought to work then why are those models any better than religious texts or personal views.

[edit] Science vs Supernatural

A common misconception is that science denies the existence of the supernatural. The reality is that science understands that "supernatural" and "magic" are simply cop-out fig leaves that basically say 'we don't understand this'. In his book Little Journeys to Homes of Great Scientists Elbert Hubbard states "To the scientist the word "supernatural" is a contradiction. Everything that is in the universe is natural; the supernatural is the natural not yet understood. And that which is called the supernatural is often the figment of a disordered, undisciplined or undeveloped imagination."

Because the supernatural is an easy out that doesn't really explain anything and generally results in non testable models science has a high bar for accepting the supernatural--all reasonably possible natural explanations must be considered and discounted before any true science will even begin to consider such an explanation.

The research of Alonso de Salazar Frías in the aftermath of the Navarre witch trials of 1610 (with the full support of Supreme Council of the Inquisition) shows why science requires such a high bar. Salazar's systematic study of witchcraft claims showed the witnesses were either lying or deluded and that supposed magical poisons were harmless. At the end of his study he concluded that not one piece of actual evidence that even one case of witchcraft had actually occurred or that such power even existed. The result of all this was the Instructions of 1614 which lessened the punishment for witchcraft and increased the requirement for empirical evidence. Even in Spain not everyone agreed with the Spanish Inquisition's new guidelines and executions for witchcraft continued in some local communities but the Roman Inquisition did agree and published a detailed metrology regarding witchcraft trials in 1655. Claims of witchcraft and testimonials were no longer enough — hard physical corroborating evidence was now required.

Horace Mitchell Miner's darkly satirical 1956 paper "Body Ritual among the Nacirema"[3] showed that labeling things one doesn't understand (or in this case doesn't take the time to understand) as 'supernatural' and 'magic' totally short circuits any attempt at really understanding what is going on.

Miner took the then common methodology of looking at "primitive" peoples and casually dismissing their ways as "magic" and turned it on the then current United States. The paper showed that with this mindset even the most scientifically based technological advanced society could be portrayed as believers in magic and the supernatural:

  • Chlorination of water to prevent disease is reduced to "the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure."
  • The hospital with all its hard learned scientific advances is reduced to a temple "that is where you go to die" with the nurses now "vestal maidens" and the doctors now "medicine men".
  • Scientific medicine itself is reduced to "ceremonies" of "discomfort and torture" with "magic wands" (thermometers) and "magically treated needles" (antibiotics and medicines).

After this Horace Miner's fellow anthropologist got the hint and actually looked at magic they discovered the only real differences between the magical world view and science was that magic didn't have a self correcting mechanic nor a set procedure for determining which concept best fit what was being observed.

It should be mentioned that there were sciences that dealt with the supernatural and magic that have eventually gone ad hoc in their theories or fell apart when they encountered observations that could not be explained. These include astrology, thaumatology (study of miracles), and the science of magic itself thaumaturgy.[4]

[edit] The anti-science movement

Bonus points if you can identify the science in question.
Image courtesy of

Where it crosses these near invisible boundaries science is often reviled — at least in part — by various groups, such as religious fundamentalists, who find the ideas in their holy books challenged or environmentalists who wish to blame science for pollution, starvation and all the ills of the world. Sometimes, politicians become annoyed when scientific results do not correspond with those which would further their particular platforms or beliefs. Results obtained by the scientific method are often inconvenient to political agendas and politicians will ignore them as irrelevant, dismissing them as a mere "theory" or worldview. These attacks on science are usually very picky, with those who attack science and label it as irrelevant are quite content to use cars, fly in planes, use satellite navigation and espouse their views over the Internet.

Critics of science are quick to point out that "science is always changing", as if it was inconsistent, able to alter its views at the drop of a hat and render itself irrelevant to the real world. In reality, this ability to change is one of the greatest strengths of science. All of science can be considered to be "work in progress", a work which corrects its mistakes and which not only changes but actively improves its theories. Unlike most of its critics, who will devote themselves to their worldview in all situations, when science encounters evidence which conflicts with its ideas, it will improve its ideas to take the new evidence into account. One of the best examples of this is the development of the structure of the atom, cube shaped blocks to a complex structure explained by quantum mechanics based entirely on what was observed as technology — aided by other branches of science — became powerful enough to make better and more accurate observations.

A somewhat more cogent criticism of science holds that, as a part of the larger trends of modernity, it tends to diminish the human experience and the human condition. These critics target science as a force which steadily diminishes every aspect of the natural world and human experience to a set of objective mechanical equations. According to these intellectuals, the scientific worldview casts man as a lone, isolated figure living, according to biologist Jacques Monod, in “fundamental isolation . . . like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world. A world that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes.” [5] These anti-science critics find this notion of a world purely of particles and (apparently) devoid of souls, the supernatural, and free will unsettling, and they see this world as the necessary intellectual consequence of the objective, materialist scientific worldview. (Whether this is a problem with science or the critics is, perhaps, in the eye of the beholder.)

Other critics claim that science has provided fantastic benefits in the areas of technology, agriculture, and medicine, but that it has not provided any sort of relief in a number of societal areas. During the Enlightenment, science (and, more specifically, the rationalism it embodied) were thought to be the key to the advent of a new golden era of political and social harmony. However, while newer forms of government, such as democracy, did emerge from the Enlightenment, the fields of social and political “science” have seen little to none of the meteoric advancement that characterizes the “hard sciences”, and war, poverty, and exploitation continue to blight the world in spite of the scientific revolution. Some critics contend that science has, in fact, worsened the human condition, because it has advanced the capability of humans to wreak devastation upon themselves and their environment without providing the social and political advancement needed to wield such capabilities responsibly. Pro-science advocates respond by claiming that science ought not to be excoriated for its own successes relative to other fields, that rationalism has wrought some improvements in these areas, and that many of the problems in society and politics stem not from a failure of scientific thought but from a lack of scientific thought.

[edit] Research

Science is sometimes, for the convenience of people who want to see results, divided into applied science and research science. The first applies scientific discoveries to the development of new and improved technology, from cars to iPods. The second pursues scientific knowledge for its own sake with no particular practical goal in mind. The nice thing about this pure research is that it often ends up providing the raw material and knowledge for unexpected practical uses.

[edit] Limitations of science

Because science, by its very nature, is based on the observations of humans, it can sometimes be erroneous, either because of a false observation, or a limit in technology. For example: a zoologist named Theophilus Painter had concluded humans have 24 pairs of chromosomes. For some 30 years at least, this was considered a fact in then-current biology textbooks. And, of course, until the invention of the telescope, it was thought that all cosmological bodies revolved around the Earth. And this erroneous observation did not go down without a fight.

Care, therefore, must be taken when making conclusions. Jumping to conclusions with only isolated evidence is a good way to make bad conclusions. The more observers of an event, generally, the better. And the more evidence for an hypothesis, the better. Contradictions may not disprove an hypothesis - only if the contradiction has a reason for being there. (For example, most substances are at their most dense when they are solid. But water is most dense as a liquid. Its chemical composition and the structure of ice's bonds accounts for this apparent contradiction.)

Also, every science begins with its own presuppositions. Common to all of science are the following: that people can think, reason, and observe things; that nature is observable and not an illusion; and that "it came from out of nowhere" is not a good hypothesis— unless in regard to particle-antiparticle pairs. Without these axioms, or self-evident truths, science could not exist at all. It is, in fact, without these sorts of presuppositions that so many maroon themselves on the rocks of fideism and so-called fundamentalism.

[edit] Quotes on science

She blinded me with science!
—Thomas Dolby
Dad, you should listen to him. He's a man of science and you can barely read.
—Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons
The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not "Eureka!" but "That's funny...
—Isaac Asimov
If a philosopher or social scientist were to try to encapsulate a single principle that yoked together the intellectual process of civilization, it would be a gradual dismantling of presumptions of magic. Brick by brick, century by century, with occasional burps and hiccups, the wall of superstition has been coming down. Science and medicine and political philosophy have been on a relentless march in one direction only -- sometimes slow, sometimes at a gallop, but never reversing course. Never has an empirical scientific discovery been deemed wrong and replaced by a more convincing mystical explanation. ("Holy cow, Dr. Pasteur! I've examined the pancreas of a diabetic dog, and darned if it's NOT an insulin deficiency, but a little evil goblin dwelling inside. And he seems really pissed!") Some magical presumptions have stubbornly persisted waaaay longer than others, but have eventually, inexorably fallen to logic, reason and enlightenment, such as the assumption of the divine right of kings and the entitlement of aristocracy. That one took five millennia, but fall it did.
Gene Weingarten

You don't use science to show that you're right, you use science to become right.
—Randall Munroe, xkcd
Science is nothing but developed perception, interpreted intent, common sense rounded out and minutely articulated.
—George Santayana (1863 - 1952)
Science is, at any given time, the best explanation we have for . ... things.
—Carptrash (still alive, if you call this living)

[edit] See also

Si vous voulez cet article en français, il peut être trouvé à science (français).

Other articles on science include:

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Quotes, Goodreads.
  2. Horace Miner, Body Ritual among the Nacirema
  3. Body Ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner, American Anthropologist, 1956, 58(3), 503-507.
  4. Bonewits, Isaac (1971) Real Magic; (2005) Authentic Thaumaturgy
  5. Jacques Monod, ‘‘Chance and Necessity: Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology’’. 1971, Pg. 172-173
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