Science

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In a Nutshell

Science is the idea that the universe is knowable, and that evidence and reproducible experiment are the best ways of discovering it.[1]

Definition & Terminology

The word "science" generally refers to any of the following[2]

  1. the scientific method: an intellectual endeavor aimed at a rational understanding of reality (also described as "the natural and social world") -- the methodology by which scientific knowledge is derived
  2. scientific knowledge: a corpus of currently accepted substantive knowledge
  3. the scientific community: the community of scientists, with its mores and its social and economic structure
  4. applied science: technology (as in "science has achieved many wonderful things" like "digital watches", "New York, wars, and so on")

("The scientific community" is also sometimes referred to as "the scientific establishment", especially when the speaker is proposing some theory based on principles which have been generally rejected by said establishment.)

For the purposes of discussion on this site, "science" by itself should be taken as referring to definition #1.

Note: a possible addition to the above list:

  • scientific ideal: when it comes to making decisions, finding the truth is more important than any other consideration. This is why questioning everything is important, because only through questioning can you move from where you are in order to get closer to the truth. (This is also why science is fundamentally hostile to religion, because religion depends on ideological protectionism to survive, and you can't question everything while protecting some things from questioning.)

Key Attributes

Science (definition #1) is a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge about reality, with reason and observation being given primacy over any other methods of discovery.

Science's methodology is characterized, above all else, by the critical spirit: the commitment to the incessant testing of theoretical assertions through observations and/or experimentation, and to revising or discarding those theories where experiment shows them to be inaccurate.

In other words:

  • In order to influence the body of scientific knowledge, an observation must be verifiable. If subsequent testing does not confirm the original observation, then that observation is rejected.
  • In order to be called scientific, a theory must be falsifiable. If there is no conceivable observation which would prove the theory wrong, then it is not falsifiable and it is not scientific.

One corollary of this is fallibilism: the understanding that all of our empirical knowledge is tentative, incomplete, and open to revision in the light of new evidence or cogent new arguments. (It should be understood, though, that the more an existing piece of scientific knowledge has withstood scrutiny, the more devastating must the evidence or argument be in order to succeed in unseating it in any capacity.)

Agreement on what constitutes scientific knowledge is not unanimous in all cases. The most widely-accepted pieces of scientific knowledge are part of an interlocking framework, where each piece reinforces the others, and information from one area of science (e.g. biology) must not contradict information from other areas (e.g. physics, chemistry); if an inaccurate piece of information somehow "got in", it would quickly become apparent that it was inconsistent with countless others. Likewise, when one piece of such widely-accepted scientific knowledge is proven to be false (e.g. that the sun does not revolve around the earth), the implications generally affect other, related pieces, and sometimes go far beyond that one piece; when a key piece of knowledge is overturned, it often leads – like one first stone in a tightly-packed layer finally coming loose – to countless new truths being discovered, which then become part of a new, more accurate and more complete framework.

Science generally proceeds from the assumption that there is an objective reality or truth[3]. Science does not presume that a full understanding of that objective reality can ever be achieved, but works instead from a process of successive approximation, i.e. iteratively improving on our understanding of reality without necessarily ever knowing all of it[4].

To oversimplify all this just a bit, science has one rule: Everything must be questioned, even this rule.

Footnotes

  1. David Brin, 2006-10-24: Resilience and Anticipation: My Speech at Google - Part Two
  2. Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers? (PDF) by Alan Sokal ([1]): includes an excellent lay-level overview of the key attributes of science, a similar overview of pseudoscience, and guidelines for distinguishing between them; portions of the explanation above are extensively quoted and paraphrased from that article.
  3. ...as opposed to postmodernism, which asserts that "truth" only exists within the context of a given social group's reference frame.
  4. ...as opposed to most (all?) religion, which generally asserts the possession of a set of absolute and/or unchanging truth via divinely-guided writing, ancient scrolls, or other mystical and supernatural means.

Related Articles

Links

Reference

Projects

Humor

  • 2011-04-09 Dresden Codak (webcomic): how the scientific process can go wrong

Filed Links

version 2

  • 2010-03-29 [Talk|Index] Moral confusion in the name of "science" § “My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind. As the response to my TED talk indicates, it is taboo for a scientist to think such things, much less say them in public.”
  • 2009-07-27 [Talk|Index] Science Is in the Details § “...it is important that we understand Dr. Collins and his faith as they relate to scientific inquiry.”
  • 2008-06-14 [Talk|Index] Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol § “Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls "renewable petroleum".”
  • 2008-06-12 [Talk|Index] Support cancer research now! § [2]“Those are survivorship curves for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. When the lines are plunging downwards, that means kids are dying like flies; when the lines flatten out horizontally, that means no kids are dying. Each line has a date for when the survival was measured. Look at the mid-1960s, the yellow line: 90% of the kids diagnosed with ALL would die within five years. But then look at the other curves — in the 1970s, 64% would die; in the early 80s, about half; in the late 80s, about 30%; in the 90s, about 20%; and now, about 10%. What's going on? .. We haven't been evolving ALL-resistant kids. The medicine has been getting better. Every percentage point that those lines are pushed upwards is the outcome of hard work and clinical testing of new drugs and protocols and therapies and diagnostic tools. That's impressive. This is how we progress. .. You will sometimes hear people claim that the answer is found in the natural healing power of the body, and that doctors don't really do anything but let nature do all the work (or worse, that treatments for cancer poison people and hinder nature's healing power). They may also say that children are just especially tough and healthy, so pediatric cancers are relatively easy... but look at the data. When doctors don't have effective treatments and don't intervene, we get those yellow lines from the 1960s. We get 90%+ survival when doctors can exercise their hard-earned knowledge.”
  • 2008-06-01 [Talk|Index] Put a Little Science in Your Life § [2]“But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.”
  • 2008-05-15 [Talk|Index] When Science Can't Help § “In any case, right now you've got people dismissing cryonics out of hand as "not scientific", like it was some kind of pharmaceutical you could easily administer to 1000 patients and see what happened. "Call me when cryonicists actually revive someone," they say; which, as Mike Li observes, is like saying "I refuse to get into this ambulance; call me when it's actually at the hospital".”
  • 2008-05-13 [Talk|Index] Science Doesn't Trust Your Rationality § “Scott Aaronson suggests that Many-Worlds and libertarianism are similar in that they are both cases of bullet-swallowing, rather than bullet-dodging...”
  • 2007-03-06 What is science
  • 2006-09-12 [Talk|Index] A Shocking Decrease in Funding of NIH Grants § “In a letter in last week's issue of Science, two scientists from the National Caucus of Basic Biomedical Science Chairs – H. George Mandel and Elliot S. Vesell – describe in detail the funding crisis currently plaguing American scientists.”

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Articles

  • 2007-07-27 A prescription for terror: "A substantial number of perpetrators of terrorism are products of a scientific education. Debora MacKenzie asks whether there is a connection and how deep it might go."
  • 2007-07-01 The new age of ignorance by Tim Adams: "We take our young children to science museums, then as they get older we stop. In spite of threats like global warming and avian flu, most adults have very little understanding of how the world works. So, 50 years on from CP Snow's famous 'Two Cultures' essay, is the old divide between arts and sciences deeper than ever?"

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