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August 07, 2011 | By:  Khalil A. Cassimally
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Define Science

Last week, I sat for an exam that induced more perspiration than was necessary. My previous exam had been more than a year ago and although the one last week was more of an informal affair (there were only nine students), I had grown unaccustomed with the time constraint. In other words, I found myself spending too much time on various sections and specific questions even. Which led to an inevitable rush (and doctor-like handwriting) during the last fifteen minutes or so.

One of those questions I did not spend too much time on was: "define science." I opted to skip it altogether (we had a number of options to choose from). Choosing not to answer this particular question is perhaps a little weird, considering my currently doing scientific research. And to a certain level, it might even be a little troubling that I skipped this question. I didn't answer the question because I was not confident I could properly define science. In fact, I was unsure what science actually entails.

Once back to "virtuality," I googled for a definition of science. This was when the whole complexity of the issue really became apparent to me. There is no one authority or grand institution that decides what science is. Science is such a wide enterprise with so much going on that coining a definition to it has been a source of problem.

Coining a definition to science means encompassing the entire enterprise within the limits of the definition. This does not mean that science may one day find its activities or processes to be restricted by a mere linguistic definition. But it does mean that some fields of study may get excluded. More on this a little later.

In view of the enormity of the science enterprise, an appropriate tactic to formulate a definition is to target similarities between the various fields of scientific study. What a definition can aim to do is to create a link between the similarities of the various fields of scientific study and attribute this link to all of science. The link will be what characterizes the various fields as one-as science. With this tactic in mind, an appropriate definition of science would adequately characterize fields of scientific study based on a similarity that is as universal as possible.

There are a number of such similarities. Reason, for instance, is one. Science makes sense after all. Scientific theories are backed by considerable evidence and using the body of evidence, processes can be understood and explained in a systematic way.

"Science is simply common sense at its best that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic." - Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), English biologist.

"Science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another." - Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), English philosopher, author.

"In essence, science is a perpetual search for an intelligent and integrated comprehension of the world we live in." - Cornelius Bernardus Van Niel (1897-1985), U. S. microbiologist.

Perhaps an extension of reason is the search for truth. If something makes sense, we tend to believe with confidence that it is true. But of course, science is not definite truth. Nor does it claim to be such. It is instead our search for what we believe is very close to ultimate truth. As such, the search for truth is another similarity that unites the fields of scientific study.

"Science is the literature of truth." - Josh Billings (1818-1885), U. S. humorist.

"When truth is evident, it is impossible for parties and factions to rise. There never has been a dispute as to whether there is daylight at noon." - Francis Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778), French writer.

Then there is the beauty of science. The awe factor that accompanies science. Because ultimately, science is about finding new things. Unexpected things. Mind-blowing discoveries.

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!' [I found it!] but ‘That's funny ...'" - Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), US science fiction author and scientist.

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." - Albert Einstein (1879-1955).

Reason, truth and beauty however are based on personal belief and interpretation. Something that makes sense to you may not to someone else. Even if it does, it might not seem convincing enough to explain what it is meant to. There is thus the need to characterize fields of scientific study based on a similarity that is not only universal amongst the fields but one that is also related to equally by the people in those fields. That similarity is the "scientific method."

"Science is knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method" - Merriam-Webster dictionary.

"Science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment." - Google dictionary.

The scientific method is a process: an observation that leads to a possible explanation (hypothesis) which is then tested repeatedly to test if it is more appropriate than other possible explanations. This is the way science is expected to reach to its conclusions about the world. It follows a deductive reasoning:

  1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
  2. Formulation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomena.
  3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
  4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

Any field of study which adheres to this process is considered science. Using the "scientific method" therefore, a proper characterization and by extension, definition, of science can be made.

Things are not so simple though. In his latest blog post, Bora Zivkovic points out that the scientific method does not only follow a deductive path.

"Hypothetico-deductive method described above, while arguably the most powerful part of the scientific method, is not the only one. There is a continuum of scientific ‘methods.'"

He goes on to illustrate how the Human Genome Project, while not hypothesis-testing, is true science and how the field of paleontology which involves a certain level of hypothesis-testing and experimenting, is true science, thank you very much.

What this means is that the common attribution of the "scientific method" as a purely deductive process is misconstrued. And given that the "scientific method" is the ether that encompasses science, our definition of science finds itself on a crumbling throne.

There are two ways to address this problem. One way, is to make sure that the "scientific method" is no longer perceived exclusively as a deductive method. Another way is to rephrase "scientific method" by a synonymous term free from the misconception that plagues its predecessor. By adopting the second option, Britain's Science Council came up with a beautiful definition of science:

"Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence."

If you're not happy with this definition, then maybe this quotation will cheer you up:

"Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating ten more." - Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Irish playwright.

Or if you're more of a romantic and couldn't care less about the above discussion:

"Questions of science / Science and progress / Do not speak as loud as my heart." - Coldplay.

Image credits: Top: Patrick Hoesly (from flickr), Middle: Alexandre Duret-Lutz (from flickr), Bottom: Chris Carter (from flickr).

September 28, 2011 | 01:12 PM
Posted By:  Dave Kiehl
Thus in the case of the HGP, once the genome had been sequenced, others could sequence it as well and compare their results to those first results. If enough others agreed on a different sequence than the first one published, then that first one would have been found to false. In a sense, the statement of the genome's sequence is an hypothesis to be tested and possibly falsified - or confirmed, as the case may be.
September 28, 2011 | 01:09 PM
Posted By:  Dave Kiehl
The Human Genome Project was primarily step one of the scientific method. The data gathered is now being used to formulate and test hypotheses.

The whole of paleontology certainly include all the steps of the scientific method.

So these are not examples that require a modification of the definition of the scientific method.

It might require one to understand that science includes all the endeavors required to follow the scientific method and that any particular scientific endeavor may include only some subset of the full set of steps in the method.

As mentioned by Taylor Burns, Popper's proposal that scientific propositions be falsifiable is also a critical element of the definition of science.
August 13, 2011 | 10:36 PM
Posted By:  Peter M
There's another side to science that you don't address: the existence of scientific institutions. Science can be seen as a kind of knowledge or a way of acquiring knowledge, but the word is also used in connection with various institutions: universities, funding organizations, journals, learned societies, professional bodies. These support the work of professional scientists in various ways and also set norms of scientist’s behaviour. It could be interesting to consider the extent to which the value anyone places on the work of professional scientists depends on their association with these institutions. For instance, are research results published in Nature seen differently than they would be if the same results were published simply on the researcher's personal self-hosted website? If so, in what way and why?
I wrote some more on this at my own blog:
August 08, 2011 | 02:07 PM
Posted By:  Taylor Burns
Conjectures and Refutations, by Karl Popper, is - hands down - still the best articulation/definition of 'science' I know. Lovely book; surely containing many quotes to add to this post's hit list.
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