"What is Science" FAQ, draft 2
Larry Klaes (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Thu, 09 Sep 1999 09:53:00 -0400
From: Marty Fouts <email@example.com>
Subject: "What is Science" FAQ, draft 2
Date: 4 Sep 1999 13:16:54 -0400
Organization: The University of Ediacara
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Having cogitated for a while over the excellent feedback I got from
the first round, I've produced a second, hopefully improved, draft of
a "what is science" FAQ that I offer for your criticism.
Q: What is science?
- "Science" is a term that describes three things:
- The history of the human curiosity about how the universe
- A wide range of methods used to observe, describe, predict, and
explain the measurable interactions of the observable universe.
- The body of knowledge gained by using those methods.
It is the method used that makes "scientific knowledge"
scientific, *not* the subject being studied. Any subject that
a scientific method can be applied can yield scientific
Unfortunately, this also means that any subject, even one we
normally think of as a scientific subject, can yield
Q: What is the 'scientific method'?
- Although much has been made of the 'scientific method', there is not a
single method, 'scientific' methods overlap those of other human
endeavors, and few, if any, scientists are concerned with all areas
Scientists at various times engage in observation, description,
prediction, and explanation. A scientific method is a method of
performing those four tasks in such a way as to be objective and
accurate. Different subject matter requires somewhat different
It is not unusual to lump together the methods of observation and
description under the heading of 'experiment' and the methods of
prediction and explanation under the heading of 'theory', although
this division is problematic.
Q: What makes a method scientific?
- The principle contribution of science to the human quest for
knowledge is in _objectifying_ the four categories of method.
An "objective" approach to knowledge is one in which two observers
using the same methods will arrive at the same knowledge, since the
knowledge depends only on the observation and not on the
observer. Clearly there are no purely objective methods, although
scientific methods strive to be as objective as humanly possible.
The idea of independently repeating an experiment to show that the
observation is objective is useful, especially in laboratory
sciences, but taken alone, it only guarantees that two scientists
arrived at the same result. It does not guarantee that the method
itself is valid.
To reduced the risk of performing bad experiments, scientists
describe their methods to other scientists, who look for errors in
the approach. The formal method of doing this is by publishing
articles in peer-reviewed journals.
Q: How is science made objective?
- The way in which science has 'objectified' the quest for knowledge is,
in principle, through the application of quantification. To the
extent that it can be measured it can be made objective.
- Can you sum up 'scientific method', again, please?
- The literature on 'scientific method', then, can be seen as a
discussion of the ways in which scientists attempt to objectify the
four activities of science. For instance:
- Observation: through the use of precise measurements, careful
experimental design and control, and repeatability. Observation
is the basis of science.
- Description: through the use of comparison to objective
standards, most notably, again, measurements. Descriptions are
built upon observations.
- Prediction: through the use of mathematical description of
interactions coupled with the design of experiments intended to
test predictions. Predictions are attempts to generalize
descriptions so that they may be extrapolated to new situations.
- Explanation: through the use of peer-review and the demand that
explanations account for all known observations and make
falsifiable predictions that allow them to be differentiated from
- How do various scientific methods differ?
- Some branches of science can rely on laboratory experiments more
easily than others, or have more control over the experiments they
perform. Physics, for example, can more often do its experiments
in a controlled lab, than can anthropology. Some branches can rely
more on quantitative descriptions while others rely more on
qualitative descriptions. The same is true for predictions.
- How does science add to our knowledge?
- The branch of philosophy that concerns itself with how we obtain
knowledge is called epistemology. One of the concerns of
epistemology is determining whether a particular method of
obtaining knowledge can obtain certainty by giving us absolute
assurance of the truth of the knowledge.
Science does not provide such certainty because it would be be
necessary to have observed everything over all time to be able to
completely describe all knowledge. To the extent that scientific
knowledge is incomplete it must remain uncertain. This is true of
any program that wants to be scientific.
The resulting epistemology of western science is often called
"empirical pragmatism." This philosophy is grounded in the
understanding that all scientific knowledge is *provisional*
knowledge and that any scientific knowledge may be rendered
obsolete by a future observation. It recognizes that, in order to
make any progress at all, science must take as given certain
assumptions that can not be validated, but that have been very
reliable for a long time, and so, will be used until they are
Some key aspects of this epistemology are
Each of these beliefs has served science well, and each is
constantly tested against the known observations.
Q: What is the difference between a theory and a fact?
- In science, a fact is an observation or series of observations, or
a description of a series of observations. Facts are answers to
'what is' kinds of questions, and are the part of science that can
be the most objective. A theory is an attempt to explain known
facts and usually involves predictions about future observations.
Theories are answers to 'how does' kinds of questions.
- What is the role of falsifiability?
- Consider a theory that makes a prediction. By testing such a
prediction, we can determine if the theory is accurate or not. A
theory that makes testable predictions is said to be "falsifiable".
It is common among scientists to accept as scientific only those
theories that are falsifiable in this sense.
- What is the difference between a theory and a law?
- A "law" in science is an empirical relationship between measurable
quantities. Newton's "law" of gravity is such an formulation.
Laws often hold only in special cases. Laws are often
descriptions. A theory is an attempt to explain and predict.
Theories often incorporate laws.
- But what about the scientists?
- A significant source of confusion in discussions of the philosophy and
history of science is to intermix the sociology of scientists with
the epistemological method of science. Scientists are humans and
suffer from all of the strengths and weaknesses of humans, and so
the quest for scientific knowledge is a very human history. But
scientific epistemology, which is the theory that results from the
practice of science, is an abstraction of human though rather than
a sequence of human actions.
- Is science a religion?
- No. However, many people have made a religion out of a certain set
of believes in what science can and can not do. To those people,
the use of science has taken a religious role.
- Is science the only epistemology necessary?
- No. Science tells us what we can do with the universe, it can not
tell us what we should do.
[if you commented on the first draft and I forgot to include you here,
please send me email and I will rectify that.]
Comments have been provided by
firstname.lastname@example.org (Andre G Isaak)
email@example.com (John Wilkins)
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