Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What is Science?

The Denver Post's Mark Matthews begins a July 31, 2014 story on Colorado's 6th Congressional District race with the following line:

"Rarely does political science bear resemblance to actual science."

To which Seth Masket, blogging for Mischiefs of Faction and expressing irritation at this dismissal of political science, replies:

"Political scientists come in a variety of flavors, but basically we're in the business of proposing theories about the way the political world works, testing those theories with some kind of data, subjecting our findings to a peer-review process, and hopefully publishing those findings so that others can confirm or refute what we've done. And our understanding of the political world has improved substantially over the past century using this approach. (See Hans Noel's article for some great examples, and see Julia Azari on Twitter for some more schooling.) That is science."

Masket's definition of science caught the attention of my friend, Professor Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, who posted this quip on Facebook:

"Well, sure it's a science -- but not, as this author claims, because of its vaguely neo-positivist logic of inquiry. It's a science because it is, at its best, systematic, public, and worldly, aiming at producing impersonally valid knowledge about matters of fact. None of which is limited to proposing and testing hypotheses."

Perhaps it is unnecessary for me to point out that Prof PTJ is a social scientist. To assure the reader (and my friend) that I mean this distinction as a compliment and not a disparaging remark, I hasten to add that I aspire to be known as a social scientist as well. It's a label I'd be proud to wear. That said, I appreciate and embrace the distinctions some would make between different types of scientific inquiry.

A good answer to the question, "What is Science?" must include all science and exclude all non-science. Definitions of science that exclude some branches of science are, therefore, unhelpful in my view. The techniques of inquiry that distinguish branches of science from one another are important. Natural and social sciences are different in meaningful ways. However the over-arching definition of science must include the branches.

Jackson's definition of science emphasizes knowledge and facts generated in real-world, applied settings. Theories, hypotheses, and experiments are nice, he contends, but not strictly necessary in the legitimate pursuit of Truth. Moreover, some Truth exists without the benefit of confirming experimental results. This idea is similar to the one which appears in poster form below:

The definition of science stirs a fair amount of passion--among scientists, anyway! What one means by the word, "science," seems to be somewhat dependent upon whether one is talking about the so-called natural or "hard" sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) or the social or "soft" sciences (psychology, sociology, economics). More to the point, the practitioners of hard sciences seem to take umbrage when social scientists assert that they are, in fact, "doing science."

All of this sturm und drang led me to ponder the question,

"What is Science?"

I concede that standards of rigor, validity, falsifiability, and reproducibility can vary with the subject of one's inquiry. Some inquiry lends itself to very precise measurements, but some perfectly legitimate inquiries use squishier scales. Still, it seems obvious that the relatively softer social sciences can, when done well, contribute to the body of human knowledge for the good of all mankind.

"Science ... is the pursuit of truth and knowledge for the good of all mankind."

When I was a PhD student at Walden University, my First Year Adviser, the inimitable Dr. Ruth Maurer, told me that

"The aim of scientific inquiry is to extend the boundary of human knowledge by an amount, epsilon." 

As if to encourage me, Walden's own Dr. Ruth continued:

"...and epsilon can be very small."

Science Club on BBC Two. Photograph: Andrew Hayes-Watkins/BBC

Naturally, all of this talk of the pursuit of Truth got me thinking about whether there is or even can be a universal definition of Science. I Googled "what is science" and got over 1 billion hits in under 1 second. Someday, when we as a species will have advanced a bit further, we will all look back on the foregoing sentence and laugh. We'll laugh not because we'll have even faster searches in the future, though we most likely will. Rather, the above search results will strike us as funny because, in 2014:

  • there were a billion references to people asking and attempting to answer such a fundamental question, and
  • to "Google" something was to type a question into a search engine, with fingers and a keyboard and a monitor, as opposed to simply thinking the question and having the answer play in our mind.

In the future, we'll have coalesced around a more universal understanding of what it means to "do" science, that is, "to conduct inquiry for the purpose of adding to the body of knowledge." Meanwhile, here are a few of the many answers I skimmed from the great social stew we call the Internet.

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." [Note: it says "and" experiment, not "or" experiment, so I disagree.]
"...a process of discovery that allows us to link isolated facts into coherent and comprehensive understandings of the natural world." [Note the emphasis on the process or method of discovery, as well as to the natural vs social world, so I find this too limiting.]
"... a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." --Carl Sagan [the preference for the rigorous process of inquiry over the often temporary result. is appreciated but this is too generic to satisfy] 
"...a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match."--Isaac Asimov [clear, simple, and agenda-free. I like it]

I conclude this "Science is" section with an insight from the Great Explainer

"Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation."--Richard Feynman [That is a powerful insight, even if it does not precisely answer the question.]

This figure was accessed August 4, 2014 on

Of course, all of this language around what science IS led me to wonder what we could learn by discussing what science IS NOT.

To begin, here is a look at the "hard vs soft" divide from the perspective of scientific rigor:
There are "five basic requirements for a field to be considered scientifically rigorous: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and, finally, predictability and testability.  ... Happiness research is a great example of why psychology isn't science" because there is no universal definition of happiness, happiness cannot be quantified, and without these two elements the remaining three are impossible.  LA Times, "Why psychology isn't science." July 13, 2012, by Alex B. Berezow

Here is a more explicit view of what science is not, based on what it does not do:

Science doesn't: 
  • make moral judgments
  • make aesthetic judgments
  • tell you how to use scientific knowledge
  • draw conclusions about supernatural explanations

I like this summary of Science and Non-science, er, Non-sense
Science …Nonsense …
deals only with natural phenomenais often based on claims of supernatural phenomena
is based on evidence from real world testshas no supporting evidence
is consistent with the coherent body of scientific modelscontradicts well-established scientific models
is based on logical arguments; anything found
to be based on a false premise is abandoned
is based on false premises or illogical arguments or often both
is always falsifiableis often not falsifiable
This table was accessed August 3, 2014 on

There is a hierarchy among scientific fields, yes, but the hierarchy I see has less to do with external measures of validity and more to do with the history of time--and of inquiry itself. Does this sort of chronological hierarchy work for you? Try it on...

  • First, the Big Bang. Physics is the science of understanding motion, light, gravity, mass, force, velocity, and entropy (among many other things). 
  • The Earth spins around its molten core. Volcanoes erupt. Gases spew. Water evaporates and falls in an endless cycle. Chemistry is the science of elements in motion, reacting--or not.   
  • The quest for light and unity. Biology is born. 
  • Inorganic things interact in predictable ways according to the laws of nature. We know that water will seek it's own level, and that sufficient heat will convert the water to steam. Lack of heat will eventually convert the same water to ice. We are still talking physics here, with a little inorganic chemistry mixed in and biological implications.
  • Living things interact in less deterministic ways. With sufficient heat and light, bacteria will grow, reproduce, and die. Paramecia, algae, pond scum, insects, fish, frogs, monkeys, and people with various levels of education, experience, and abilities and variable opinions, values, and means. Sociology is not the study of life but the study of how living things interact in groups. And it is a science because it is the pursuit of truth and knowledge for the good of all mankind.
There is a hierarchy among sciences, and the definition of science must include all the branches while excluding other forms of inquiry and practice that may be related to science, but are not strictly organic to science. 

Not included? 
  • Mathematics is not science, it is the language of science and of logical inquiry. I suppose math theory is science, but the point of math is to share abstract ideas via symbols. It's mostly a language.
  • Technology is not science, it is the application of science to solve some sort of problem. 
  • Medicine is technically a technology, though the line is blurry. Medical research is science but medical practice that is not aimed at adding to the body of knowledge is just an application of established ideas. If my doctor treats me and publishes a journal article about it, then the lines get blurry. Medical doctors, Psychiatrists, Psychologists, registered Nurses and other members of the caring profession are not scientists when they are caring for a patient, but they may be scientists when they design, conduct, or participate in clinical trials or other scientific research. 
  • Although one may earn"Science" degrees in Engineering and Management. these pursuits are not science, but applications of science.  
  • Para-psychology, and other pseudo-sciences must be distinguished from legitimate Social Science. Tarot, MBTI, Astrology, Numerology and the like my have the ring of truth in some cases, but here is where I circle back to the key distinction Professor Jackson articulated, namely, that science aims at producing impersonally valid knowledge about matters of fact. My personality profile or destiny code may help me appreciate certain things, but such knowledge is hardly impersonal or even factual.

Now finally, with all the talk about what is and is not science, there must be some discussion of Quality. All physics is not "good" physics. Quality, like beauty, is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the Quality of a scientific endeavor is socially constructed. If so, that would explain how certain things once held to be true may be later discarded as false in light of newer and better information. I like how ProfPTJ said it best and conclude with his definition:

"Science is, at its best, systematic, public, and worldly, aiming at producing impersonally valid knowledge about matters of fact."