What is science?

Suddenly we are talking about “what is science” on scienceblogs.com. Well, according to some of our commenters science is a bunch of stuff that many of us science bloggers never talk about! Which to some extent is certainly true. But we are not a textbook! We are blogger-beings!

This discussion is going on in one form or another here and here. I have a small number of bullet points to add.


1) Science is about material truth. As such, science recognizes the fallacy of truth and at the same time tirelessly works towards ‘knowing’ the truth.

2) If you think about science too much, it begins to become unscientific. It is important to think about science, but one has to know when to stop.

3) The rational explanation is at the core of scientific endeavor. Any enterprise that favors the more rational over the less rational is intrinsically scientific.

4) The Scientific Method, as one famous scientist said, is what we do when we don’t have any good ideas. Observation itself is a creative process, and explanation is even more so. This is left out of most dry descriptions of “the circle of science.” But we know it is there.

5) Science is utterly apolitical. Which, in turn, makes science a powerful political tool. Be careful.

Comments

  1. #1 Cal Harth
    January 14, 2009

    I like your view of science. Humble observations have produced many wonderful insights that fall into the category of good science. I am embarrassed by a “science” focussed on seeking things to publish about.
    I spent too many years collecting data, crunching numbers, producing tables and figures, only to take it to someone I worked for that had huge thighs from leaping to conclusions. I would start out with saying we may have something interesting here. They would immediately begin to explain it to me and plan on where it could be published.
    Cal

  2. #2 uncle noel
    January 14, 2009

    Love philosophy of science. Points one and two are problematic: acceptance of an institution without really understanding it seems irrational (see point #3, like religion. So I decided a long time ago that what makes science valuable is it’s utility: it works objectively. If you want to build a bridge, cure a disease, take down an enemy, etc, science provides the best tools. Religion lays claim to “truth” too, of course. But if it has utility, it is political or subjective (except for miracles, which always seem to happen somewhere else, like flying saucers).
    Bonus Question: If praying for rain to a particular God made it rain without fail, would that discovery be scientific or religious?

  3. #3 Valhar2000
    January 14, 2009

    Unlce Noel, that is clearly a question that is amenable to science. You proposed something that is clearly falsifiable, so it can be tested, and probably even elaborated upon.

  4. #4 uncle noel
    January 14, 2009

    Prayer, aura healing, intelligent design, and other nonscientific ideas, lack theoretical foundation. But so does new science. Wegener was mocked when he suggested that continents moved. If prayer worked, we would have to use a drastically different model of the world to explain why. Science would look a lot more like religion. The difference comes down to useful results.
    But lack of theoretical foundation is usually enough to discard an idea. Have those ID’ers come up with a plausible designer yet?

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    January 14, 2009

    In 1959, I had a half of a graduate level geology course devoted to explaining why continental drift was not a useful concept. I think the major problem was that there was no reasonable mechanism known to provide the movement. Also there was no evidence of the lighter continents sailing through the underlying denser rock like ships in the night. Plate tectonics provided a mechanism and moves the continents in a different way consistant with evidence.

  6. #6 uncle noel
    January 14, 2009

    Really? In ’59 the magnetic banding of the ocean floor wasn’t known? That was the the first conclusive evidence, if I remember correctly. Anyway, Wegener was right, but the reason he was doubted was understandable: there was no theory or model to explain such a thing. Though it seems to me possible that someone could prove (to a reasonable standard) that there is no way the continents would fit together like puzzle pieces unless they actually had.
    Val missed my point about prayer. I was saying, “what if it was verified as having a real effect in an apparently scientific way.” There would still be no reasonable theory or model to explain it other than a seemingly religious one. I present the question, not as a real possibility, but only to try to distinguish science from nonscience in a nonarbitrary way, which is difficult to do if you recognize that “truth” and “objectivity” are difficult to pin down. It comes down to getting a lot of others to agree with you and the meaning of your evidence. But religions have that!

  7. #7 RBH
    January 16, 2009

    Uncle noel asked

    Bonus Question: If praying for rain to a particular God made it rain without fail, would that discovery be scientific or religious?

    It would simultaneously bee an engrossing and potentially very fruitful subject of scientific study and a death blow to (most) theology.

  8. #8 Riman Butterbur
    January 17, 2009

    If uncle noel’s rain prayer always produced rain without fail, his god must be very dumb or lacking in self-esteem. Why would such a powerful being be so slavish toward puny mortals?

    I think such a consistent result would argue for a more naturalistic, mechanistic explanation for the phenomenon.

  9. #9 W T Frak
    January 20, 2009

    Uncle Noel: Early scientists, bothered by inconsistent cause-and-effect results, must have prayed devoutly that God just back away quietly and take His thumbs off the scales. God obliged, and retreated to emulate the Deist model of Himself. And ever since then, science has worked.

    But if He ever decided otherwise, all that would change….

    Oh dear, I think I’ve just anticipated the next ID argument.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    January 20, 2009

    You have to read that book by that guy in which god comes to people as a burning bush. But over time, god gets bored with this form of communication and humans find god increasingly irrelevant and the whole thing just peters out.

  11. #11 JanieBelle
    January 20, 2009

    Burning bushes is a human rights violation, isn’t it? I think the fucker should stand trial in The Hague.

  12. #12 JanieBelle
    January 20, 2009

    (Unless of course you burn your own bush. Then you’re on your own. I’d recommend a more modern depilatory method.)

  13. #13 W T Frak
    January 20, 2009

    If people saw Bush burning, many of them would exclaim, “There is a God!”

    So that would be one way he could advance the faith….

  14. #14 W T Frak
    January 20, 2009

    Greg: What is the carbon burden of a divinely burning bush, that burns without being consumed by the flame?

    Because if we can get God to replicate that appearance wherever needed, it might provide a new carbon-free source of energy.

    Unless of course the phenomenon was originally an oil burn-off in that oil-rich region, happening just the other side of an untouched bush, so it only looked as though the bush was burning.

    That’s what had the Zoroastrians regarding flame as a divine symbol, the flames at oily sites. It must seem blasphemous to them that the divine substance is tapped for industry and everyday travel. Perhaps the resulting pollution is divine vengeance….