What is Science?

Philosophers of science, and scientists who delve into popular publishing (to name just two) spend a good deal of time and effort trying to define science. Much learned discussion and some remarkable theories have no doubt been put forward. However, my reading of this literature is almost non-existant and I confess to wishing to keep it that way (naive ignorance is bliss). However, it does seem a bit silly to engage in this activity without considering the question, at least superficially. I refuse to accept any argument which leads to infinite regress (what Feynman called "paralysis of thought") and insist that this definition be pragmatic. Thus I offer my uninformed characterization of science for those who wish to tell me where I'm wrong and why.

Operational Definition

Science is the collection of experimental results which are reported with complete detail and honesty so that others may perform the experiment at a different time and place and achieve the same results.

This definition frees us from many of the objections that arise when trying to define the "scientific method" and "objective reality". In fact, it dissociates science from how science is done. The method of science becomes an economic question, rather than a question of principle. As an economic problem, the method of science must try to optimize the use of scarce resources in order to achieve the most meaningful results. Obviously, this also brings values into the method of science, so the process can be rightly seen as a very human (ie. embedded in a social context) activity even though it has a transcendental quality about it (which accounts for its stunning success). The collection of experimental results can be seen as an "objective reality" because the validity of the results is not tied to a specific culture, world view or paradigm (you just knew that word was going to appear, didn't you).

The value of science resides in the fact that it provides knowledge which is unassailable. The results of experiments are communicated in such a manner that anyone can reproduce the experiment to see if the same results occur. Our confidence in experimental results is directly related to how often an experiment is verified by an independent worker (or how likely we feel it is that the experiment may be reproduced). For example, we do not have a great deal of confidence in many high energy particle collision experiments because very few people have the means to reproduce those results, and among those who do, funding constraints prevent them from doing work that is already established. This is simply a result of the economics of doing science and does not undermine the value of science at all. Those who do science, are necessarily forced to be skeptical as a result.

Much is often made about the dichotomy between theory and experiment in science, thus it is worth clarifying the issue under the present outlook. The principle value of theory (in science) is its ability to summarize the results of experiments. Humans can only hold a few ideas in their minds simultaneously, therefore it is difficult to consider a body of experimental results, except individually. With a simple theory, in which the results of many experiments are seen as logical outcomes of the theory, the task of simultaneous cognition can be accomplished. Theory is useless, and sometimes even destructive, if the person is unaware of what experiments have actually been done and how they were done. This can lead to a completely inappropriate use of the theory (eg. proclaiming its logical consequences as fact or truth). Since the most important aspect of theory is to summarize the results of experiments, it is crucial to know the range over which a theory performs this task accurately. For this reason, scientists try to find predictions of a theory which they think are most likely to be contradicted by experiment. Once found, the experiment is carried out and the theory either has its range of usefullness extended or cropped. When a theory is found to have a definite boundary to its predictive power, then scientists try to find a more general theory which covers all the known experimental evidence (in which the previous theory can be derived under some limiting conditions). Thus the trend is science is to try to find the most general theories possible (some would like to find a single "theory of everything"). It should be noted, that theories are only in competition with overlapping theories which have already been proposed; in the absence of any other theories, a particular theory that manages to summarize a limited number of experiments is to be considered a valuable theory even if it can be proven wrong in some other domain. Any theory which has no known contradictions with experimental evidence (after many, many such experiments have been tried) is called a physical law. This is strictly a nomenclature of convenience which represents our confidence, it is a capital mistake to take such a convention literally.

Characteristics of the Scientific Method

This part is under construction, stay tuned

Some of my favourite science quotes.
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Document last updated on 11/16/95.