Bronze-level article


From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Poetry of reality
Icon science.svg
We must know.
We will know.
A view from the
shoulders of giants.
A Rough Guide to Types of Scientific Evidence
(Click to enlarge)
The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson[1]

Science is the systematic approach to acquiring knowledge about how the world works using the scientific method — that is, generating hypotheses and theories through observation and testing. Science is closely 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 satisfy our natural curiosity and possibly use this knowledge for the betterment of humankind, or for the destruction of humankind, whichever comes first. But note that practical applications is not always the primary motivation for scientific research, hence the phrase "pure science" as opposed to "applied science".

Categorizing science[edit]

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

The term "science" comes from the Latin scientia, meaning knowledge.[2] However, what we now call science was referred to as natural philosophy. As the field develops, when we say "science", we refer primarily to the natural (or "hard") sciences — the study of the natural world and the fundamental laws of nature — biology, chemistry, and physics. History, psychology, economics, and other studies of human behavior are called the social (or "soft") sciences. In contrast to the natural sciences, the social sciences are more prone to the observer bias, where preconceived beliefs drive the investigation and interpretation. It is often challenging to apply the process of "repeatable controlled experiments" to these sciences. There are simply too many variables that are either very difficult or impossible to isolate or eliminate. Nonetheless, there are interdisciplinary fields that necessarily cross the boundaries between the natural and social sciences, such as neuroscience and archeology. In the olden days, even theology was considered a science.[3][4] Each of the broader fields of science is then broken up into finer and finer sub-fields. For example, branches of physics include classical mechanics, classical electromagnetism, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, condensed-matter physics, special and general relativity, relativistic quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, nuclear and particle physics, astrophysics, and cosmology, to name just some. Divisions notwithstanding, each of these subbranches may be related to one another. For instance, astrophysics uses results and concepts from relativity, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and nuclear physics, while optics can be either classical — geometric and wave optics[note 1] — or quantum. Hence, the categorization of science is, in a sense, artificial.

As mentioned previously, for the convenience of people who want to see results, scientific endeavors can be divided into applied science and basic (or pure) science. The first applies scientific discoveries to the development of new and improved technology, from cars to iPods. It must be preceded by the second, which pursues scientific knowledge for its own sake with no particular practical goal in mind. It is often the case that pure research ends up providing the raw material and knowledge for unexpected practical uses. When asked how his work in electromagnetism could be useful, Heinrich Hertz, who built primitive radio generators and receivers as well as forerunners of modern day satellite dishes, responded that he did not know.[note 2]

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.


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. The fact that we have been able to use the knowledge provided by science for a certain practical application is indicative of its success. Scientists and engineers have produced drugs that cure diseases, vaccines that prevent them in the first place, the cultivation, distribution, and storage 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 examples are things like ballpoint pens, insulated houses, flushing toilets, and the materials and dyes used in modern clothing.

Science versus supernatural beliefs[edit]

One misconception held by some people is that science aims to refute all supernatural beliefs. Scientists are not necessarily biased against such beliefs; there are practicing and respected scientists who are also people of faith. Many theists embrace NOMA, which claims that religion and science are separate domains and should not criticize each other. Scientists at work see the world through the lens of methodological naturalism, which assumes that supernatural phenomena are not influencing their investigations. This assumption prevents science from drawing definite conclusions about the existence of the supernatural.

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 an assumption. Salazar's systematic study of witchcraft claims showed that the witnesses were either lying or deluded and that the supposed magical poisons were harmless. At the end of his study, he concluded that there was not one piece of actual evidence that there was even one case of witchcraft actually occurring 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"[5] 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 United States. The paper showed that with this mindset, even the most scientifically-based technologically 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 anthropologists got the hint and actually looked at the magic they discovered: the only real differences between the magical worldview 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.[6]

Scientists understand that any worldview that can explain anything — or rather, everything — has no predictive power at all. Such approaches are not useful tools for examining how the world works and the interactions between different things — be it atoms and molecules, cells and organisms, or stars and galaxies. Only predictions that can be proven wrong are useful and advance our understanding of how the material world works.

The anti-science movement[edit]

A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science
(Click to enlarge)
See the main article on this topic: Anti-science

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, as 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 a "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, which began as cube shaped blocks and has evolved to a complex structure explained by quantum mechanics. This was based entirely on what was observed with technology — aided by other branches of science — and 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."[7] These anti-science critics find this notion of a world purely of particles and (apparently) devoid of souls, the supernatural, and free will to be 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 Age of Enlightenment, science (and, more specifically, the rationalism it embodied) were thought to be the key to the advent of a new golden age 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.

Limitations of science[edit]

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 (the actual number turned out to be 23) 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 a 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, at the base of science, there must be sound philosophy wherever support is needed that science itself is not providing. This may include things like logic, knowing what the scientific endeavor even is and why it should be pursued, and overcoming various extreme forms of skepticism.

Quotes on science[edit]

... scientific knowledge is the sign of great achievement and alone is truly capable of cumulative and indefinitely pursued progress.
—Antoine Augustin Cournot[8]
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)

It is the nature of the scientific direction which Magnus pursued in his researches, that they build many a stone into the great fabric of science, which give it an ever broader support, and an ever growing height, without its appearing to a fresh observer as a special and distinctive work due to the sole exertion of any one scientific man. If we wish to explain the importance of each stone for its special place, how difficult to procure it, and how skilfully it was worked, we must presuppose either that the hearer knows the entire history of the building, or we must explain it to him, by which more time is lost than I can now claim. Thus it is with Magnus’s researches. Wherever he has attacked, he has brought out a host of new and often remarkable facts; he has carefully and accurately observed them, and he has brought them in connection with the great fabric of science. He has, moreover, bequeathed to science a great number of ingenious and carefully devised new methods, as instruments with which future generations will continue to discover hidden veins of the noble metal of everlasting laws in the apparently waste and wild chaos of accident. Magnus’s name will always be mentioned in the first line of those on whose labours the proud edifice of the science of Nature reposes; of the science which has so thoroughly remodelled the life of modern humanity by its intellectual influence, as well as by its having subjugated the forces of nature to the dominion of the mind.

—Hermann Von Helmholtz (with remarks that have broad relvance: to scientists and the scientific practice), Gustav Magnus: In Memorium.[9]

See also[edit]

Other articles on science include:

Want to read this in another language?[edit]

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

Se você procura pelo artigo em Português, ver Ciência.


External links[edit]


  1. What this means is that geometric optics is largely an exercise of Euclidean geometry and that light is now known to behave like a transverse wave (one that oscillates perpendicular to the direction of propagation), more precisely an electromagnetic wave.
  2. He probably did not care either.


  1. The good thing about Science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it. by Neil deGrasse Tyson (3:47 AM - 11 Apr 2021) Twitter (archived from March 22, 2022).
  3. Pratt, Parley Parker (1855) Key to the Science of Theology Deseret News Steam Printing Establishment
  4. Rudder, William (1869) The Mutual Relations of Natural Science and Theology
  5. Body Ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner, American Anthropologist, 1956, 58(3), 503-507.
  6. Bonewits, Isaac (1971) Real Magic; (2005) Authentic Thaumaturgy
  7. Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology. 1971, pp. 172-173
  8. O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., Antoine Augustin Cournot, MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
  9. Von Helmholtz, H., 1897. Popular lectures on scientific subjects. taken from the reprint in Longmans, Green, and Co. 1908. pp. 24.