Defining science

Prompted by a Bostonian comment in response to a recent post (and perhaps because I can’t think of anything else to write about at present), I thought I would regurgitate some thoughts on the inexactitude in defining science.

Arriving at a concise definition is not straightforward. If regarded as a chronological inventory of discoveries and facts, it will have clarity, but, without appreciation of how knowledge is obtained, it will be sterile and limited. More thoroughly, science is learning or study concerned with demonstrable explanation of truths or observable phenomena, characterised by the systematic application of scientific method to the testing of hypotheses with empirical data. However, this is still vague, in part due to an imprecise definition of ‘the scientific method’, but also because its meaning has shifted over time as science has developed in – and as – culture.

Science today is often taken to include, or used interchangeably with, technology – the application of scientific knowledge to industrial and commercial objectives. This two-way relationship enables the development of technology for science, and suggests that a definition should thus incorporate technology. However, this is distinct from ‘technoscience’, a term John Pickstone coined to illuminate the lack of ‘purity’ in science, which no longer exists (or rarely) in its more orthodox guise of ‘academic science’ – the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. Science now is agenda-driven, being funded by specific concerns with specific aims and purposes, whether military, medical, etc. There is little justification for funding science, either publicly or privately, that does not produce some product or application. Thus, technology and science are now so intertwined that technoscience is taken for granted as ‘science’. However, this can be problematic, as touched upon (pre-update inoffensively) recently by Andrew Sun.

Philosophers and historians of science differ in their interpretations, and what they consider as relevant to its study, devoting whole chapters, even whole books, to address the issue. Alan Chalmers concluded that the question, What is this thing called Science?, is ‘a misleading and presumptuous one’. Its meanings, and attitudes towards it, are a flux; its pursuit and the often counter-intuitive knowledge it produces have been continually interrogated. We should perhaps refer to ‘sciences’, as a diverse range of practices, as opposed to ‘science’, which implies the same standards and expectations – clarity of truth – on all. These are normative philosophical considerations, acknowledging science in the modern era as cumulative and progressive and applicable to the betterment of mankind. However, postmodern naturalistic epistemology, in its rejection of absolute truth and/or the assumption of scientific beneficence, questions the very status of science per se (rendering it caliginous).

I might come back to this in future (if I can be arsed). In the meantime, try asking round your lab or wherever; see what people come up with. I’ll venture the following:

  • Science is the pursuit of objectivity within subjectivity.

But, enough of all that for now. There’s more to life than science. Of greater interest in the last week is just how good Kristin Scott Thomas is. And a more pressing concern is my decision to come out of football retirement (again). This could all go horribly wrong (which may pretty much sum up my science career, come to think of it). But, you have to do something.


  • I’ve Loved You So Long

2 responses to “Defining science

  1. I would perhaps define science as (man, it’s hard!):
    Much more than a mere field of study, science is a way of life built around the basic tenets of reason and thought, the ability to question, to critically appraise and analyze one’s surroundings, and to accept any given hypothesis only after rigorous examination of all available evidence; and by the same logic, science is also continuous re-evaluation and validation of accepted hypotheses. Precisely for this reason, science has the ability to see a phenomenon in many different ways, and to temper itself with compassion and ethics.
    A scientist’s appreciation of the immediate environment is, therefore, enhanced; the knowledge that sound travels as waveforms by alternate compression and relaxation of air does not diminish the euphonic beauty of Beethoven, Mozart or Bach’s music, but rather embellishes it. Intimate knowledge of light as a form of energy or of the chemical reactions on sun’s surface responsible for it does not attenuate the beauty of rising sun. Evidence-based acceptance of the theory of evolution of modern day human beings from primate ancestors does not reduce the achievements of mankind in the sciences and the arts.


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