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Lecture 11:  What is This Thing Called Science?

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  • It is now time to pause and reflect on the image of science that hopefully emerges from the examples we have explored.

    I have borrowed the title of this lecture from a book by A F Chalmers (see the section on Recommended Readings in the Syllabus page). I strongly urge you to read at least the first few chapters. It is one of the best (and most concise) introductions to the topic. It is by no means the only one, of course.

    What is science is not obvious. One might argue that science is what scientists do. But scientists come in many different flavors: astronomers, biologists, chemists, physicists, and so on. And what about mathematicians? Are they scientists too? If you were to study the original work of all these specialists, you would start doubting that they are all doing the same thing. Their methods are quite different; some of them seem to use only paper and pencil, while others require incredibly complicated equipment; and what an astronomer considers evidence or fact may not qualify as such for a chemist. And what about technology? Is it simply the application of science to practical problems? Does technology require a pre-existing science? Or vice versa? For these reasons, many scholars (historians, sociologists, philosophers, and scientists themselves) have carefully examined the history of science, its assumptions, its methods, its people, its institutions. Unfortunately, the answers provided by these scholars are quite diverse and often conflicting, and they have become a matter of heated controversy. Here are a few examples:

    Consider the word 'science' itself. The etymology of this word is simple enough: it derives from the Latin 'scire,' a verb which means 'to know.' Although, as a word, 'science' appeared in English in the fourteenth century, the cognate word 'scientist' appeared only in 1834. This is interesting. Before that date, how were the practitioners of science called? Newton, for instance, was known as a 'natural philosopher.' Notice that 'philosopher' derives from the Greek, and means 'lover of wisdom.' These few observations should offer some evidence that the meaning of science has probably undergone many transformations, and is likely to reflect the culture in which the term was or is used. This means that what we pack nowadays in this word is probably determined, at least in part, by our culture, and may not be as absolute as we thought.

    A somewhat related question has to do with the content of the word science. Normally we use it to denote a lot of possibly different disciplines: biology, chemistry, physics, etc. If we want to understand what science means, are we authorized to lump together under this umbrella term all these disciplines? Are biology's methods of inquiry the same as those of chemistry? And what about disciplines like "social science" or "political science"? This is a difficult question which reaches somewhat beyond the scope of this course. It is important, however, to remember that it is a question to which no final answer has been given yet.

    Consider now the question whether science is a unique European phenomenon, and read  Read ! Bright Sparks, where the author, Z Sardar, claims that "passion for science isn't restricted to the richer countries of the West. If people think otherwise, it's because colonialism did its best to stamp out every last vestige of indigenous research in the East.."
    "There is nothing uniquely Western about the pursuit of knowledge through deductive reasoning. All living cultures, however 'backward' they may seem to the European gaze, have an appreciation of logic, reasoning and empiricism. A culture that does not value knowledge per se is a rare and, I hasten to add, extinct—beast. Cultural attitudes have nothing to do with scientific progress or lack of it in the developing countries.

    The assertion that science cannot develop in conformist societies is also false. Consider Japan, one of the most conformist nations on Earth yet with one of the most developed scientific structures in the world."

    And if you still think that this is simply an 'academic' issue, consider, for example, the fact that in a 1993 decision concerning Daubert v Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., the US Supreme Court declared: "in order to qualify as 'scientific knowledge' an inference or assertion must be derived by the scientific method. Proposed testimony must be supported by appropriate validation—i.e., 'good grounds,' based on what is known." [ from US Supreme Court's Conclusion About the Scientific Method ]
  • I will now briefly review some of the major theories about science, beginning with one that is very popular even among scientists: the scientific method (note the inclusion of "the"). To start, read the summary of the traditional concept of scientific method by J Wudka (UC Riverside) in his course  Read ! Physics 7:
    "The scientific method is the best way yet discovered for winnowing the truth from lies and delusion. The simple version looks something like this:

    1. Observe some aspect of the universe.
    2. Invent a tentative description, called a hypothesis, that is consistent with what you have observed.
    3. Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
    4. Test those predictions by experiments or further observations and modify the hypothesis in the light of your results.
    5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between theory and experiment and/or observation.

    When consistency is obtained, the hypothesis becomes a theory and provides a coherent set of propositions which explain a class of phenomena. A theory is then a framework within which observations are explained and predictions are made.
    If you ask most practicing scientists, they would generally agree that that's how they 'do science.' Is that true? It is not too difficult to see that things are not so easy, and that there are important questionable assumptions hidden under such a simple formulation.

    Let's consider a classical and practical example of the use of the scientific method. In 1776 a German astronomer, Johann Ehlert Bode published what became known as Bode's Law. In fact, the credit should go to a German mathematician, Johann Titius (1772), but that's another story … Titius and Bode, and many other astronomers of the time, were interested in understanding why the planets are where they are in the solar system. Why should the Earth orbit at about 150,000,000 km from the Sun? This is a difficult question, and even today we don't really have a satisfactory answer (the major motivation for the ongoing search for extrasolar systems is precisely to find relevant clues to this problem). By the late eighteenth century astronomers had already measured the distances from the Sun of all the planets then known. These were the initial observations Titius-Bode started with. When you look at the data, keep in mind that the farthest planet known at the time was Saturn. Titius-Bode tried to find a hypothesis that would fit these data. They came up with a simple formula. He first expressed all the data in so-called astronomical units (one AU is the average distance of the Earth from the Sun). The Titius-Bode 'hypothesis' can be summarized as follows (a is the semi-major axis of a planet's orbits, and n is an integer; see Titius-Bode Law )


    a = 0.4 + (0.3)2n

    Planet n Titius-Bode Law Semi-Major Axis
    Mercury −∞ 0.40 0.39
    Venus 0 0.70 0.72
    Earth 1 1.00 1.00
    Mars 2 1.60 1.52
    (Asteroid Belt) 3 2.80 2.8
    Jupiter 4 5.20 5.20
    Saturn 5 10.0 9.54
    Uranus 6 19.6 19.2
    Neptune 7 38.8 30.1
    (Pluto) 8 77.2 39.4
    (1992QB1) 9 154.0 41
    (?) 10 308.0 ?
    ... ... ... ...


    Notice that the value predicted for Neptune actually seems to fit Pluto, while the value predicted for Pluto does not seem to correspond to any known solar object. I have also included 1992QB1, the first member of the so-called Kuiper Belt, discovered only in 1992; no value of n appears to fit its position. Notice also that the "asteroid belt" was not known at that time. This resulted in all the entries after Mars to fall in the wrong places. To simplify the discussion, this is not reflected in the table above.

    Let's look again at the steps of the scientific method outlined earlier on. Steps 1 through 4 are clearly at work. However step 5 seems to fail, for at least one good reason: nothing prevents n from growing indefinitely; short of assuming that the entire universe revolves around the sun, and that there is an infinite number of bodies in the universe, the hypothesis is bound to fail rather soon.

    On the basis of the definition of the scientific method, we should therefore discard the Titius-Bode's 'hypothesis,' and start from scratch. In this specific case the hypothesis was indeed set aside, also because the formula embodying it is not really a guess as to why the solar system is ordered the way it is, but an example of descriptive curve fitting. However, it is rather easy to find examples of hypotheses which, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, were retained—often in the name of beauty and simplicity, or in the hope that further evidence may eventually support it, or in the realization that discarding it would require discarding an entire body of seemingly well-established knowledge. Such considerations lie clearly outside the scope of the scientific method as described above.

    A very good source of actual examples, with excellent discussion, is H Collins & T Pinch, The Golem: What You Should Know about Science (2nd edition, Cambridge U Press, 1993, 1998). You may also want to read an essay by D Johnson, Mysterious Craters of the Carolina Coast, in G A Baittsell, ed, Science in Progress (2nd Series, 1950, Yale University Press; reprinted in S Rapport & H Wright, eds, Science: Method and Meaning (1963, New York U Press; 1964 Washington Square Press)). In their introduction to the article, the editors write: "It illuminates the ways in which observation can be put to use and the errors which may creep in if the most rigorous thinking is not employed. It is also an example of a situation that has occurred time and time again in the history of science. Despite the most careful analysis, a problem may remain unsolved because the evidence is incomplete or the correct hypothesis unavailable."
  • There is much more, however, that can be said about the scientific method. For example, 'observations' depend themselves on pre-existing assumptions and theories.
    "What an observer sees, that is, the visual experience that an observer has when viewing an object, depends in part on his past experience, his knowledge and his expectations [ … ] Observation statements … are always made in the language of some theory and will be as precise as the theoretical or conceptual framework that they utilize is precise. The concept of 'force' as used in physics is precise because it acquires its meaning from the role it plays in a precise … theory, Newtonian mechanics [ … ] Observations and experiments are carried out in order to test or shed light on some theory, and only those observations considered relevant to that task should be recorded [ … ] it is essential to understand science as an historically evolving body of knowledge and a theory can only be adequately appraised if due attention is paid to its historical context [ … ] observation statements are theory-laden and hence fallible." [ from Chalmers, op.cit., p 25 - 35. ]
    As an exercise, re-read, for example,  Read ! Lecture 1, and examine the research described therein in the light of Chalmer's critique.
  • A variation on the scientific method theme is the position taken first by K R Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Hutchinson, London. 1968). Such position is often referred to as falsificationism. An hypothesis is said to be falsifiable "if there exists a logically possible observation statement or set of observation statements that are inconsistent with it, that is, which, if established as true, would falsify the hypothesis … the more falsifiable a theory is the better … theories that have been falsified must be ruthlessly rejected. The enterprise of science consists in the proposal of highly falsifiable hypotheses, followed by deliberate and tenacious attempts to falsify them. To quote from Popper:
    'I can therefore gladly admit that falsificationists like myself much prefer an attempt to solve an interesting problem by a bold conjecture, even (and especially) if it soon turns out to be false, to any recital of a sequence of irrelevant truisms. We prefer this because we believe that this is the way in which we can learn from our mistakes; and that in finding that our conjecture was false we shall have learnt much about the truth, and shall have got nearer to the truth.'
    [ … ] The demand that theories should be highly falsifiable has the attractive consequence that theories should be clearly stated and precise." [ from Chalmers, op. cit., p. 40 - 44. ]

    Once again, re-read some of the previous lectures and discuss some of the hypotheses therein in terms of falsifiability. Notice also that falsificationism too has its problems. As Chalmers puts it, "The claims of falsificationism are seriously undermined by the fact that observation statements are theory-dependent and fallible." [ from Chalmers, op. cit., p. 61. ]

    The debate on what is science did not end with Popper, of course. However, in the present context we'll have to content ourselves with the brief notes above. I strongly urge you, however, to read Chalmer's book, which discusses some of the more recent and more important attempts to arrive at a realistic answer to the question of what is science. Here I will limit myself to pointing out the recent, extreme attacks on science mounted by postmodernism and deconstructionism. By way of introduction, please read the  Read ! Introductory Remarks by J Wenger, National Association of Scholars, the new editor of Science Insights. He quotes the words of his predecessor S Balch, who wrote: "[our mission] seeks to inform the scientific community about the growing currency of anti-science, anti-technology ideas, and the increasing prevalence of pseudo-science and anti-rational philosophies within our universities."
    "… most of you have heard the wicked insight observed by some unknown genius that every fortune cookie sounds better if the words 'in bed' are added at the end of the saying ("You have many friends who cherish you … in bed"). Well, inspired by this insight, I have come to the realization that something similar is true of those who hold that there is no truth, or that truth is gender or class or fill-in-the-blank specific. My insight is that the words 'except for this truth' have to be added whenever such a formulation is stated in order to save it from total incoherence. For example, "All truth is gender specific" should be stated as, "All truth is gender specific except for this truth." Then, all we need is an explanation as to why this statement has managed to be the one exception to the general rule."

Readings, Resources and Questions

  • We often hear about the 'progress' of science, as a process that moves closer and closer to some absolute truth about the physical world. Discuss the evidence that is usually suggested as evidence for such progress.
  • Using the library and the web, find a good definition of 'deconstructionism.' Please note that a dictionary is definitely not sufficient.
  • The continuing debates on evolution vs intelligent design or creationism, evidence-based medicine vs alternative medicine, etc., show that there is often little public understanding of what science is about.
  • Here is a simple exercise to put some flesh around the abstractions discussed above. It's called NASA Quiz.


© Copyright Luigi M Bianchi 2003-2005
Last Modification Date: 27 November 2005