Outline and Links:
What science isn't I: A historical perspective
What science isn't II: Science Isn't Art
What science isn't III: Science is not technology
What science isn't IV: Science isn't Truth, and it isn't certainty
What science isn't V: Science isn't Religion, or a religion


What Science Isn't


 

What Science Isn't, Part I: A Historical Perspective

Many historians suggest that modern science began around 1600 in the time and with the efforts of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Their era punctuated the change from scholasticism of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to science as we know it. Scholasticism largely involved deductive reasoning from principles supplied by Aristotle, by scripture, or by notions of perfection (which largely involved circles and spheres). It was thus a "top-down" intellectual enterprise. Modern science instead involved induction from multiple observations of nature, and so worked "bottom-up" from basic observation or experiment to generalization. In the words of Bacon's Novum organum, "For man is but the servant or interpreter of nature; what he does and what he knows is only what he has observed of nature's order in fact or in thought; beyond this he knows nothing and can do nothing. . . . All depends on keeping the eye steadily fixed upon the facts of nature and so receiving the images simply as they are."

Galileo's and Kepler's work exemplified this fundamental change in attitude. Medieval thinking had assumed a centrality of humanity, so that the earth on which humans lived was thought to be the center of the universe. It had also assumed a perfection requiring orbits of heavenly bodies to be circular. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543, and thus a hundred years before Galileo and Kepler) had cautiously broken with the first of these assumptions to conclude tentatively that the earth orbited the sun, but he clung to the idea of a perfectly circular orbit. Galileo argued much more forcefully for an earth orbiting the sun, ultimately breaking the earth-centered view that was based on human-centered logic. Kepler showed that the orbits of the planets are ellipses, rather than the circles required of a philosophically perfect universe. More recent observations - that those orbits are changing ellipses, that the earth is not perfectly spherical but is an oblate spheroid, and that the sun occupies no central position in just one galaxy among billions of galaxies - would all be very distasteful to the scholastic view of the world, which assumed geometric perfection and human or earthly centrality.

To summarize: The logic of modern science requires that observations or facts govern the validity of generalizations or theories. Previous thinking had often gone the opposite direction. Galileo was reminded of that previous direction when he was taken to Rome and condemned because his "proposition that the sun is in the centre of the world and immovable from its place is absurd . . . because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture" (to quote the official judgment of the court). The success and everyday application of modern physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and the other sciences is forceful evidence of the validity of the modern approach.

 

What Science Isn't, Part II: Science Isn't Art

To say science isn't art may seem trivial, but comparing the two helps illustrate what science is. We'll start with art, and then move to science.

Art is the attempt to express an individual's feelings or ideas about something in a way that others find beautiful, graceful, or at least aesthetically satisfying. Thus art is very individualistic. Outside the performing arts, art is almost always produced by individuals, because it has to have purity of expression that can only come from one person. In the performing arts, art is generally the concept of one person (a composer or choreographer), although it is executed by many. Art is also individualistic in that a painting or sculpture left in the studio is nonetheless art, even if no one else sees it, and even if anyone who saw it thought it ugly, graceless, or tasteless. Undisplayed or unloved art is still art in that it expresses the concept of the artist.

The second part of our definition suggests that art ought to be beautiful or aesthetically satisfying. Until the twentieth century, beauty was a requirement of art. In the twentieth century expression became so important, or the expressed concepts were often so distressing, that pure beauty may have suffered at times. Aesthetics nonetheless remain critical to art. Certainly in the art most popular today (Impressionist paintings; the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and even much rock music; ballet and modern dance; poetry from Shakespeare to haikus), beauty remains a critical component.

Science, in contrast, is the attempt to reach demonstrable, replicable, conclusions about the natural world (and social science is the corresponding attempt to reach demonstrable conclusions about the social or human world). Individualism exists, in that what each scientist studies and how they study it are somewhat open to their choice. However, the conclusions reached have to be demonstrable to others with physical evidence. If an artist says, "This work expresses something deep in my heart", everyone nods approvingly. If a scientist says, "I don't have any evidence to show you, but deep in my heart I know . . .", everyone rolls their eyes and leaves the room as quickly as possible. The non-individualistic nature of science is also reflected by how much scientific research is done by groups: a single-authored paper in particle physics is about as common as a multi-authored novel.

Secondly, in working from our definition of art but now comparing science to it, science doesn't have to be beautiful or aesthetically satisfying, or even emotionally satisfying. Electron orbitals can be shown to be distorted, crystal structures can be shown to have defects, ocean basins and their currents can be shown to be asymmetric, planets can be shown to be non-spherical, and that's OK - even though a geometrically perfect world might be more beautiful. Atoms can be shown to decay, species can be shown to change, continents can be shown to move, merge, and split in random ways, the universe can be shown to be changing explosively, and that's OK - even though an invariant timeless world might be more aesthetically satisfying. Humans can be shown to be ill-designed animals genealogically descended from scruffy or slimy ancestors, and that's OK - even though it's not emotionally satisfying to humans.

To summarize (and generalize): art is largely an individual's effort to communicate his or her ideas or feelings in a beautiful way. Science is a group effort to characterize reality. Aesthetics, the sine qua non of art, don't count for much in science. It's of course true that many scientists and people who understand science find aesthetic satisfaction in scientific concepts and the patterns of nature, and physicists will even claim to find beauty in their equations. It's also true that many scientists get some aesthetic satisfaction, or at least are able to exercise their artist-wanna-be ambitions, in illustrating scientific concepts. However, beauty never is, or never should be, a criterion for evaluating the validity of a hypothesis or theory.

 

What Science Isn't, Part III: Science is not Technology

One of the mistakes many people make in thinking about science is to confuse it with technology. As a result, science often either receives undue credit (for the "miracles of modern science" in one's kitchen) or undue blame (for everything from overly firm tomatoes to nuclear war). In fact, science doesn't make things. Scientists developed the understanding of radiation sufficient for the invention of the microwave oven, but neither making a microwave oven nor using it are science. Scientists are in the business of generating knowledge, whereas engineers are in the business of generating technology.

People doing science often use sophisticated technology, but science doesn't require it. Our ecologist observing natural bird behavior and our geologist examining an outcrop neither use particularly sophisticated technology. In fact, the only technology in common to all science is the notebook in which observations are recorded.

In short, science often leads to technology, and it often uses technology, but it isn't technology, and in fact it can operate quite independently of technology.

 

What Science Isn't, Part IV: Science isn't Truth and it isn't certainty

Some people assume that scientists have generated a body of knowledge that is sure to be true. Some ideas, after all, are known with enough certainty that most of us take them for granted. An example is our common assumption that the earth orbits the sun. Much scientific evidence supports that idea, which is the heliocentric theory of the solar system, and most of us take it as "true". However, no human has observed the solar system and seen the earth traveling in an orbit around the sun. It's just a theory, if a nearly inescapable one.

In that sense, most scientists will concede that, although they seek Truth, they don't know or generate Truth. They propose and test theories, knowing that future evidence may cause refinement, revision, or even rejection of today's theories. Ask a scientist about an issue that's not directly observable, and you probably hear an answer that starts with something like "The evidence suggests that . . ." or "Our current understanding is . . .". You're not hearing waffling or indecision. You're hearing a reasoned recognition that we can't know many things with absolute certainty - we only know the observable evidence. However, we can reach the best possible conclusion based on the most complete and modern evidence available.

That contrasts strongly with the knowledge claimed by many other people. Many people claim that they, or a book or books they endorse, hold all relevant knowledge and that such knowledge is absolutely and unquestionably true. The Bible, for example, is often held up as containing all knowledge, and as being literal and infallible Truth. No science book has ever been endorsed that way, nor should it ever be.

As an example, consider the question "How did the world begin?". A scientist's answer will begin with the evidence that we've gleaned from decades if not centuries of astronomical study, which includes several lines of evidence about the motions of galaxies. It will conclude with a theory that fits the accumulated evidence. There won't be, or at least oughtn't be, any statement about absolute truth.
     In contrast, some other people will answer that the world was created by a certain deity a certain number of years ago. If asked about their level of certainty, these people generally respond that they have absolutely no uncertainty. No scientist thinking about what he or she is saying will answer with that degree of certainty, regardless of the evidence available to them, nor will they lay that kind of claim to Truth. They may have a high level of confidence if there's abundant evidence, but they won't claim absolute Truth or absolute certainty.

It's worth remembering that a person's admission of uncertainty doesn't mean they're wrong, whether the issue is in politics, economics, religion, or science. In fact, a person who admits some uncertainty in their thinking is often closer to the truth, or at least understands the issues better, than someone who claims absolute certainty. Shouting loudest does not generate truth.

 

What Science Isn't, Part V:
Science isn't Religion, or a religion

Science and religion are very different, both in what they try to do and in the approaches they use to accomplish their goals. Science seeks to explain the origin, nature, and processes of the physically detectable universe. Religion seeks (or religions seek) to explain the meaning of human existence, to define the nature of the human soul, to justify the existence of an afterlife for humans, and to maintain devotion to a diety or deities. Their goals are thus very different.

Thier methods are also very different. Science uses physical evidence to answer its questions and relies on modern humans to make inferences from that evidence. Religions, on the other hand, commonly use divine inspiration, interpretation of ancient texts, and (in some cases) personal insight as the source of the answers to their questions. Science and religion thus are not, or should not be, competing approaches, because they seek to accomplish different things, and by different methods. In light of these fundamental differences in goal and method, science and religion are distinct but mutually compatible paradigms (a term we will explore further in the next section)

Consideration of these goals and methods shows that science and religion have little overlap. Science has no business making inferences about souls, about afterlives, and about deities, because those are not physically detectable or measurable entities about which hypotheses can be tested. Many religions, especially eastern ones, correspondingly make few claims about the origin and nature of the physically detectable universe. Religions that do make such claims generally do so because of their acceptance of the entirety of an ancient text that includes stories about the origin of the earth and its life. Religions that treat their ancient texts' stories as allegorical rather than literal have little or no conflict with science.

To illustrate these differences, some generalizations about religious knowledge, artistic or mystic knowledge, and scientific knowledge are given in the table below. One has to bear in mind the tremendous diversity in both religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, shamanism, Shinto, etc., and the many variations of Christianity) and in science (experimental to observational, physical to biological, etc.), and the almost infinite diversity of mystic experiences. The following isn't meant as a condemnation or idealization of any one of the three, but as a way of seeing each in the light of the other.

Science and other kinds of knowledge
------- Religious Knowledge 1 Artistic/Mystic Knowledge Scientific Knowledge
Outrageous stereotype of user Bible-thumping fundamentalist or imam in a turban; may be fond of Sunday-morning radio, or hadiths and tafsirs. Crystal-hugging wearer of tie-dyed T-shirts; listens to new-age music. Geek with pocket protector and calculator; watches Discovery Channel a lot.
How one discovers knowledge From ancient texts or revelations of inspired individuals. From personal insight, or insight of others From evidence generated by observation of nature or by experimentation.
Extent to which knowledge changes through time Little. May be considerable. Considerable.
Extent to which future changes in knowledge are expected by user None. Can be expected, to the degree that the user expects personal development Considerable.
How knowledge changes through time Unchangeable except by reinterpretation by authorities, or by new inspired revelations, or by divergence of mavericks. As user changes or as user encounters ideas of others By new observations or experiments, and/or by reinterpretation of existing data.
Certainty of the user High, given sufficient faith; can be complete. High Dependent on quality and extent of evidence; should never be complete.
Assumptions That ancient texts or inspired revelation have meaning to modern or future conditions. That personal feelings and insights reflect nature. That nature has discernible, predictable, and explainable patterns of behavior.
Usual Objectives To understand the human soul, the nature of a deity or deity, and the conditions of human afterlife. To understand the physical and/or metaphysical universe. To understand the origin, nature, and processes of the physically observable universe.
Where users put their faith In the supernatural beings that they worship or in the authorities who interpret texts and events. In their own perceptions. In the honesty of the people reporting scientific data (the incomes of whom depend on generation of that data), and in the human ability to understand nature.
Sources of contradiction Between different religions; between different texts and/or authorities within one religion; within individual texts (as in the two accounts of human origin in the Judeo-Christian Genesis). Between users, who each draw on their own personal insights Across time, as understanding changes; between fields, which use different approaches and materials; and between individuals, who use different approaches and materials.

Note that each of these ways of thinking can have its advantages, depending on how one views the world:

- - - For someone who values constancy very highly and is uncomfortable with changes in knowledge, science can be very unsettling. On the other hand, for someone who can adapt to changing understandings of the world and even enjoys newly discovered ideas, science can be quite attractive.
- - - For someone who places little faith in the integrity and abilities of contemporary humanity, science may hold little credibility. However, it can be of great value for someone who questions past authority and instead is more trusting of the peer-reviewed published reports of some contemporary humans who make their livings as scientists.
- - - For someone who is comforted by traditional views of a special nature of humanity and by the thought of a caring guiding force, science can provide an unpleasant perspective. As one college student put it, "I do not want to be the only kid in the playground who knows the truth about Santa Claus."2 However, for others, science can provide a useful, if harder-edged, perspective by which to view the world.

Summary

Science is the concerted effort by very real human beings to understand the history of the natural world and how the natural world works. Observable physical evidence, either from observations of nature or from experiments that try to simulate nature, is the basis of that understanding. The results of, and inferences from, those observations and experiments become scientific knowledge only after publication, and the point of publication is to change previous ideas. Thus theories, the large-scale concepts that are based on huge amounts of data and try to explain and predict large bodies of phenomena, may be powerful ideas, but they are constantly subject to revision or even rejection as new knowledge emerges. The result is that scientific knowledge is constantly changing but hopefully proceeding toward a more correct view of the world.

 


 

Onward to
. . . Scientific Thought: Facts, hypotheses, theories, and all that stuff (the third (and next) page in this series)
. . . Some Definitions of Science (the fourth page in this series)





1 This caricature of religious approaches to knowledge is written largely with more Western and purportedly monotheistic religions in mind, especially Christianity and Islam. Many eastern religions are more encouraging of sustained inquiry and less insistent on unquestioning faith. The Dalai Lama's enthusiasm for unfettered scientific study of meditation is an example.

2 Quotation from one of his classes by Dr. Sheldon Gottlieb in the University of South Alabama webpage listed below.

      The author of this page thanks Dr. Vemuri Ramesam of Hyderabad, India, for his help in improving the content.


Some other webpages on "What is Science?"
. . . for a Physical Science course at Arizona State University.
. . . for an Earth and Atmospheric Sciences class at Saint Louis University. (brief but good)
. . . from a lecture series at the University of South Alabama (probably the best of these three).

Some other relevant webpages:
. . . A history of gravitational theories from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein.
. . . Some links on astronomer Maria Mitchell.


To return to sections above:
. . . . .What science isn't I: A historical perspective
. . . . .What science isn't II: Science isn't Art
. . . . .What science isn't III: Science is not technology
. . . . .What science isn't IV: Science and other kinds of knowlege - an illustrative comparison >


Back to the What Is Science? index page.
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