What is science?

A current P & R thread got me thinking about this question, which I’ve struggled with on and off in the last five years.

I’m interested in what people think are the common features that define a discipline or activity as science or scientific. Feel free to contrast the term with any other commonly used phrase (i.e., science versus arts/humanities, unscientific, pseudo-science).

edit: Haha, beat.

Empiricalism, repeatability, materialism.

Empirical because it’s derived from observation. Repeatable in that it’s not an observation unique to a particular observer (otherwise he would be a prophet), material in that it concerns the extant world that can be manipulated.

It’s “science fiction” to create a theory about the laws of the universe before the big bang unless those theories make conclusions that can be connected to the actual world, for example. It’s not “science” if you claim to have detected cold fusion if you can’t explain how it happened or how to repeat the experiment with anyone else. It’s not “science” if an observer’s observations are mixed with metaphysical actions the observer infers. It’s also not science if the observer starts with a metaphysical conclusion and then looks for evidence of it in the natural world.

Art … i was going to say Art does not draw conclusions, but that’s not always correct. Better, though, Art and Poetry seem acts of Creation. Ultimately science is discovery of what is. Where the line begins to blur are in things like biochemistry, but that’s still science because while science may create things that have never before existed those things are not created arbitrarily but are governed by the laws that have already been uncovered - Art is something that did not exist before and it’s creation is not governed by universal laws. Of course you may discover that Art does follow patterns, especially in things like music, and that these patters constrict and guide creativity. And in biochemistry there may exist, under the laws of the universe, a perfect formula for a perfect anti-cancer drug, exactly fitting to the human physiology, but we don’t know it because our knowledge of every detail of every interaction of those laws is imperfect.

Philosophically perhaps the most interesting problem with Science is why we need Science at all. Why is the universe complex and not simple? Why are the laws that govern it obtuse and not transparent? Why is it impossible for us to manipulate the fundamental laws that govern things? It’s easy to wax anthropomorphic in these sorts of speculations, but on principle it seems odd that Science, to a certain degree, is necessary at all.

Broadly, the traditional definition I’ve seen is that it’s anything that is investigated via the scientific method (observe, hypothesize, test, conclude, etc.).

Of that, one crucial aspect is that the tests must be falsifiable, i.e. you can anticipate potential outcomes that disprove the hypothesis. If you can handwave any potential failures away with “well, yeah, maybe it’s still true and something unknown just makes it look like it failed” then it’s not scientific.

To touch back on that other topic, the reason I’ve seen that evolution is considered scientific is that you can hypothesize about features you expect to see in ‘intermediate’ species, go out and look for them, and see if they match what you expected. If you were to discover a creature that is known to be closely related to others (by, say, DNA analysis), but they were fundamentally different in some major way, that would e considered a falsification of evolution. Say, for example, a link between homo erectus and homo habilis turned out to be a cactus.

Edit: Bah, badly beaten, but it’s worthwhile to test my own ability to explain.

Re: evolution. It’s not really a scientific thing, it’s an observed phenomenon. Like a tree. The only parts that are exposed to the scientific method are the mechanisms of evolution; natural selection, gradualism, punctuated equilibrium, etc. Evolution itself was never in doubt, from well before Darwin’s time. Of course, I’m speaking about “among scientists and natural historians”, not amongst the general population.


Science involves a community of mostly honest people working carefully and skeptically at finding out the truth about something, keeping records, and building on past research.

Like Talmudic scholars!

For what it’s worth, the Wikipedia entry posted above is a collection of many interpretations of the scientific method, some of which contradict one another, rather than a single set of common features. I’d still be interested in which definitions within the entry posters agree with, and the reasons for preferring those interpretations.

Thanks for the responses so far.

I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when talking about science is framing it as an ideology (for examples, just browse P&R for a few minutes.) Science is a methodology, the distinction being that science does not advocate any course of action. There is a tendency among some people to ascribe ideological motivations to science because scienctific evidence is used for advocacy, and scientists often take part in that. But science as a philosophy is agnostic. It is merely a tool used to describe the natural world, nothing more.

Unfortunately in practice science often seems to involve adopting a pet theory and then doing everything in your power to shoot down anyone who disagrees. Finally when the champions die we can get a new theory and start again. See Kuhn or Feyerabend. It’s the best system we have but the theory and the practice are not the same.

Yeah, the ideology/method line on science isn’t always so clear cut; note the common scientific fallacy of “if I can’t measure it, it either doesn’t exist or isn’t important.”

I thought it meant the people who tell us that drinking booze every day is good for us.

According to P&R, it’s the stuff that’s only valid if it’s explained really, really politely.

Wow. I’d hate to hear the least interesting problem.

Using a fallacy as a strawman, eh? How about this:

“If it doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t exist. If it does exist, I’m going to try and measure it.”


Ah, poor choice of words. I can’t help it the only time i can post on Qt3 is at work :).

We have in fact determined that this is Science.

But seriously, I was thinking about this the other day over lunch.

Science is ultimately the Scientific Method. And the Method itself is itself a kind of process that scientists have generally mutually agreed upon to mediate the inherent flaws of inductive reasoning.

That’s a mouthful, so let me explain a little deeper.

Generally, the only things that are absolutely true are those which exist within closed, deductive systems, and even then, that is only if (a) the assumptions are true and (b) the deductive reasoning is logically (mathematically) valid.

For example: “If A, then B.” If A is true, then B must be true, and there are no exceptions.

The flaw in scientific knowledge is that we’re limited to what we can observe. We’re making generalizations about what we’ve seen. For example, up until recently, we believed the Coelacanth to be extinct. Why did we believe this? Because the only Coelacanths anyone had ever seen were million-year-old fossils. Then, one day, someone saw a living Coelacanth.

The problem with the Scientific Method is not that scientific truth is fallible. The problem is that people don’t act scientifically, any more than they behave according to strict logic. When standard scientific practice believes one thing and the evidence demonstrates another, the scientific community – whose careers have been based on the old beliefs – generally react with scorn. The story of Barry Marshall is the archetype for this sort of thing.

So it’s important to know that scientific consensus is essentially meaningless; in Science, the facts are not decided by a democratic vote. However, this statement does not translate into a license by which one can just believe whatever the hell one wants without evidence, reason and counter-arguments that address the almost certain flaws with your evidence/reasoning brought up by the community. That is what the Method is for.

In theory, you are correct. In practice, people do make an ideology out of it. Scientists do argument from authority and ignore the evidence just as often as Christians fail to love their neighbors and enemies.

Because as components within the universe we seek to understand, we cannot observe it from afar, without affecting it or in any truly objective manner.