1. Observe and analyze.
  2. Develop a hypothesis to explain what you have observed.
  3. Extrapolate based on that hypothesis.
  4. Develop experiments to test those extrapolations.
  5. Carry out the experiments
  6. Continue back at step 1.

Science as process and product

Science is about finding stuff that works. No more, no less.

Science is a process that has given rise to a body of knowledge. Science is not just that body of knowledge.

That body of knowledge is often venerated as "science" and used to beat the credulous over the head. This is often factually correct, but usually just turns them off what they think is science. Nobody likes to be told they are stupid by an arrogant nerd.

It is easy to use "science" as buzzword, a holy cow. To set it up as an icon to be worshipped, now that we've killed god.

Science, in essence, is just stuff that works. If it doesn't work, it's not science. This is the much-venerated scientific method. it is well explained in other writeups, but here is my take on it:

  • First, observe what happens. Try to do so in as impartial and repeatable manner as possible. If it's not repeatable, it's not science.
  • Come up with a theory that explains the facts that you have observed. Don't get overly attached to your theory, you may have to abandon it.
  • Use your theory to make predictions about things you haven't tried yet, then try them. If your theory's predictions match what you observe then you may be on to something.
  • Think of something that if it happens, would disprove your theory. Try to make that thing happen.
  • If your theory does not explain the facts, throw it out and get a new one that does. Repeat.
  • If your theory explains all the facts that other theories in the same area do, and facts that other theories don't, then you are definitely onto something.
  • Tell other people about what you have done so that they can try to replicate your observations, spot flaws in your observations and theory and generally build on your acomplishments.

Any theory that lasts is going to end up with a good fit to reality. In short, it will work.

If you want to be strict about the way that you refer to a good theory, the theory is never true. The theory is not reality, it is just marks on paper. It is not the truth, It's only a model A theory is either more accurate in it's predictions of reality than another theory, or less so. It is simple or complex. It is elegant or not-so-elegant. It either has known flaws, or doesn't. It has been superceded or not. But it is never the absolute truth, the last word. All theories are accepted on a provisional basis, as they can be discarded if something better comes along.

Science as an evolutionary process towards a defined endpoint

Some say in the postmodern fashion that "all explanations of the world are just narratives, and all are equal". I agree with the first part. Yes, the theories that come from the scientific method are just narratives. But not all narratives are equal. They can be judged according to their fitness to their purpose. A kind of natural selection applies.

For instance, a hunter-gatherer jungle tribe might have a explanation that the world was created by being hatched a cosmic egg laid by the celestial duck. This story can be judged according to its fitness to its purposes: to give an answer to kids who ask "why?" to everything which gives them a sense of wonder, to reinforce the power base of the shamans, and so on.

A scientific theory is one that is judged according to criteria that strive towards some kind of complete truth, i.e. a 100% accurate description of how the real world works. I'm not claiming either that we can or can't have a perfectly accurate description of the world, just that we can and do strive toward it.

A scientific theory is judged good if it does not conflict with any known fact about reality: It must not be provably false, and it is better if it makes testable predictions about things yet unobserved. It must be falsifiable and the experiments must be repeatable by others.

Science works because in part it harnesses the human ego: if you can disprove someone else's theory or come up with a better one, you will be noticed. It is a free market of ideas. It is competitive. It has natural selection.

Science and non-science

There is no such thing as a supernatural occurrence. If something occurs, then it is by definition natural, even if we don't know the hows and whys of it.

If something occurs, then there by definition is a scientific explanation for it. To take an extreme example, we haven't come to believe the theory that our reality is controlled by a big guy with a long beard, but if there was strong evidence that this was a better theory than what we find in modern physics, then it would be a scientific one.

For instance, what is alternative medicine? If a treatment was proven to have an effect, even if we had no idea why, it would be assimilated into scientific medicine. Of course, the effect would have to be consistent and not just the placebo effect. And naturally, there would be intense interest in finding out why it works because of the predictions (ie new medicines) that could be made from knowing. Understanding is control. Knowledge is power.

Yes, there may be delays in assimilating new ideas due to egos and vested interests. But in the long run, it is inevitable. Alternative medicine is alternative to what works.

Hence the purveyor of any alternative treatment will try to market it as something that is going to soon be noticed by the mainstream. For instance, homeopathy is just about to gain mainstream credibility, and always will be.

The body of knowledge generated by science gets complex. That's because reality is complex, and people even more so. But the concept of science is an astoundingly simple one: It is just stuff that we know works.

Dismal sciences

What about economics, psychology, social science? Are these sciences? They do not have the repeatability that I talked about above.

First off, these studies are important and useful independent of if they fit the definition of science or not.

Secondly these studies all have one thing in common – they study the actions of human beings. As physical systems go, human beings are by far the most unpredictable, contrariwise, variable, self-referential systems you will ever encounter. How do you account for all variables that affect a person's actions? Getting them to do exactly the same thing twice is very difficult. How do you repeat a circumstance? If you are using the same persons as subjects, it's different, as they have done it before. If you use other people, then that's a difference.

It could be that simply we are studying the wrong level here, that a complete scientific understanding of say, economics (which itself requires some theory of mob psychology) is like trying to model the earth's weather with quark physics. Imagine trying to replicate your experiments with that model!

Thirdly if a result is only statistical, then that statistic is itself a result. If you can only produce a given result half the time, then others should also be able to verify that 50% mark.


Thank you for staying with me through this rambling rant.
Science is a weekly peer-reviewed scientific journal which appeals to a cross-disciplinary audience. It is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and is based in Washington, DC. It was first published by a member of the AAAS from 1880-81 (funded, interestingly enough by Thomas Edison), ceased publication for one year, and started again in 1883. It suffered some hardships, financially, until 1894 when it came under the ownership of James McKeen Cattell in 1894. The psychology professor brought the journal under the auspices of the AAAS officially that year, and edited the journal for the next fifty years.

The papers published in Science are generally shorter than those in normal scientific publications. There are several categories of papers that are published in Science. The principal papers in the journal are called Research Articles. Research articles are roughly 4500 words long, and are expected to present a major advance in the scientific field in question. These articles may have up to six figures or tables, and may cite up to 40 references. In recent years, authors have been permitted to supplement the material in research articles with information kept online. Reports are more numerous than research articles, and can be up to 2500 words in length. These papers normally present important new information with broad significance. They may have up to 4 figures and tables, and may cite up to 30 references. Again, online information may supplement the publication.

They also publish even shorter reports, called Brevia (~800 words) and Technical Comments. Brevia may have one illustration, and are intended to summarize recent research results, and a more thorough publication likely occurs in another journal. Interdisciplinary research is favoured in the selection of brevia. Technical comments are only published online, and discuss papers previously published in Science. They are normally accompanied by a reply from the authors of the paper being discussed.

Other sections in the journal include Editorials, Book Reviews, Essays, Perspectives and Reviews.

The journal has a very high impact factor, and is one of the two best-known interdisciplinary scientific journals (it is second, in IF, to Nature). Given its interdisciplinary and prestigious nature, the journal gets numerous submissions and rejects upwards of 90 percent of the papers it receives.

The journal, along with its articles, can be found online at http://www.sciencemag.org. (Beware www.sciencemag.com, which takes you to what can only be called a domain name squatter).

Science:

  1. The study of the material universe or physical reality in order to understand it. This is done by making observations and collecting data about natural events and conditions, then organizing and explaining them with hypotheses, theories, models, laws, and principles.

  2. The organized body of knowledge about the material universe which can be verified or tested.

  3. A particular branch of either the process of study or the body of knowledge, such as astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. See hard science and the social sciences for further information.

Science has been one of my main interests since I was in second grade, and over the years I have had at least a passing interest in many different branches of science. Recently, I have tried to think about what I consider to be the overarching principle of science. What separates science from non-science?

There has been much written about this, some of it here. There are many different definitions of science, with some debate amongst different proponents. Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein (supposedly) almost came to blows over the issues, and while the prospect of the two fighting with a poker over logical positivism might be entertaining, the dense terminology used to debate induction, deduction, logic and utilitarianism, and many of the other buzzwords that surround the philosophy of science, are something of interest only to a few. And, if I can make a generalization, they are perhaps not something that working scientists are that concerned with.

Coincidentally, however, it was Wittgenstein that provided one of the best analogies for how to describe science. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein uses the example of the word "game", and its many contexts. Solitaire, tennis, jump rope, Candy Land, tag, golf, Sudoku and water polo are all games. Some games are competitive, some games are not. Some games are played with others, some are played alone. Some games involve physical activity, some do not. Some games involve luck, some involve skill, and some involve both. Further examples could be given, but the point is fairly obvious: there is no single definition that precisely fits everything that might be a "game".

And I have finally decided that science is the same way. There is no single definition that covers everything that might be described as "science". Some science is experimental. Some science is observational. Some science involves things that can be handled and built, and is therefore of utilitarian interest. Some science is very speculative. Some science involves almost solely abstract mathematical models, while some science just involves noticing obvious daily phenomenon. Some science deals with universal laws, while other science describes unique items or events. For example, it is a scientific observation that I saw a group of Stellar's Jays last week, in the Sapphire Mountains. It is scientific speculation to imagine that planets surrounding stars in the Magellanic Clouds would be mostly made of silicon and oxygen, with relatively small iron cores. And it is scientific calculation to compute the force of the gravitational attraction between two neutrinos a light year apart. In the first case, I am observing a unique event, and am not formulating a hypothesis. In the second, I am using known facts to guess at unknown facts, which I have no way of confirming or falsifying. And in the third, I am using mathematical laws to calculate a force that is too small ever to be observed directly. All three of these examples are parts of scientific activity, and yet they have little in common with each other, and no single overarching principle.

In other words, science is not a single, definable activity or discipline, but rather a term we used for a group of interrelated activities. While it may seem like a poor answer, I do believe, to paraphrase a supreme court justice, that the only real definition of science is "I know it when I see it".

Sci"ence (?), n. [F., fr. L. scientia, fr. sciens, -entis, p.pr. of scire to know. Cf. Conscience, Conscious, Nice.]

1.

Knowledge; knowledge of principles and causes; ascertained truth of facts.

If we conceive God's or science, before the creation, to be extended to all and every part of the world, seeing everything as it is, . . . his science or sight from all eternity lays no necessity on anything to come to pass. Hammond.

Shakespeare's deep and accurate science in mental philosophy. Coleridge.

2.

Accumulated and established knowledge, which has been systematized and formulated with reference to the discovery of general truths or the operation of general laws; knowledge classified and made available in work, life, or the search for truth; comprehensive, profound, or philosophical knowledge.

All this new science that men lere [teach]. Chaucer.

Science is . . . a complement of cognitions, having, in point of form, the character of logical perfection, and in point of matter, the character of real truth. Sir W. Hamilton.

3.

Especially, such knowledge when it relates to the physical world and its phenomena, the nature, constitution, and forces of matter, the qualities and function of living tissues, etc.; -- called also natural science, and physical science.

Voltaire hardly left a single corner of the field entirely unexplored in science, poetry, history, philosophy. J. Morley.

4.

Any branch or departament of systematized knowledge considered as a distinct field of investigation or object of study; as, the science of astronomy, of chemistry, or of mind.

The ancients reckoned seven sciences, namely, grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy; -- the first three being included in the Trivium, the remaining four in the Quadrivium.

Good sense, which only is the gift of Heaven, And though no science, fairly worth the seven. Pope.

5.

Art, skill, or expertness, regarded as the result of knowledge of laws and principles.

His science, coolness, and great strength. G. A. Lawrence.

Science is applied or pure. Applied science is a knowledge of facts, events, or phenomena, as explained, accounted for, or produced, by means of powers, causes, or laws. Pure science is the knowledge of these powers, causes, or laws, considered apart, or as pure from all applications. Both these terms have a similar and special signification when applied to the science of quantity; as, the applied and pure mathematics. Exact science is knowledge so systematized that prediction and verification, by measurement, experiment, observation, etc., are possible. The mathematical and physical sciences are called the exact sciences.

Comparative sciences, Inductive sciences. See under Comparative, and Inductive.

Syn. -- Literature; art; knowledge. -- Science, Literature, Art. Science is literally knowledge, but more usually denotes a systematic and orderly arrangement of knowledge. In a more distinctive sense, science embraces those branches of knowledge of which the subject-matter is either ultimate principles, or facts as explained by principles or laws thus arranged in natural order. The term literature sometimes denotes all compositions not embraced under science, but usually confined to the belles-lettres. [See Literature.] Art is that which depends on practice and skill in performance. "In science, scimus ut sciamus; in art, scimus ut producamus. And, therefore, science and art may be said to be investigations of truth; but one, science, inquires for the sake of knowledge; the other, art, for the sake of production; and hence science is more concerned with the higher truths, art with the lower; and science never is engaged, as art is, in productive application. And the most perfect state of science, therefore, will be the most high and accurate inquiry; the perfection of art will be the most apt and efficient system of rules; art always throwing itself into the form of rules."

Karslake.

 

© Webster 1913.


Sci"ence, v. t.

To cause to become versed in science; to make skilled; to instruct.

[R.]

Francis.

 

© Webster 1913.

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