Defining Science

Misogynistic authoritarian Vox Day requests a definition of science. His commenter suggests:

Science – sci∑ence (s?’?ns) n. – The organized attempt to disprove the existence of God so we can do whatever we want without feeling bad about it.

Anyone involved in the arguments over creationism will recognize this sentiment that science is about morality and theology, but it really and truly isn’t.

Dr. Myers offers a much better tripartite definition. He puts science-as-encyclopedia first, which I think is unfortunate. People tend to think of science as a collection of facts, which ignores the important role that uncertainty plays in science. I would argue that science-as-process is the least understood but most important aspect. Science is a process, refined through historical practice, which tests claims against evidence, rejecting those claims which make bad predictions, conditionally accepting those which make good, ideally unexpected, predictions and ignoring those which make no prediction.

The body of scientific knowledge is derived from those experiments and refined over time by the progress of science. As we whittle away the falsehoods, we approach a nugget of truths and almost-truths. The way we teach science in many schools muddies those waters. Science-as-encyclopedia implies rote learning of facts, each presented as gospel truth, and we all have bad memories of that sort of teaching. I remember that, after saying I planned to major in biology, many people would tell me that they liked biology but didn’t care for all the memorization. Science-as-encyclopedia brings bad pedagogy and undermines public understanding of science.

Science-as-process acknowledges and even revels in uncertainty. Saying “I don’t know,” is the beginning of good science, not the end of inquiry. Scientists spent the 1980s and ’90s arguing over and testing ideas about the forces driving the global climate system, ultimately reaching general agreement about the role human actions have played in the observed warming. People who appreciate science-as-process recognize that progression, and understand how and why certainty increased over that time period, while acknowledging that uncertainty will always remain, as it does with any scientific hypothesis. People who see science as an assemblage of facts reject that uncertainty, giving up on the idea that scientists could ever have certain knowledge on that (or any?) matter.

Some people, like Vox Day’s commenter, see the absence of morality and theology in science-as-encyclopedia as a normative rejection of those topics. Encyclopedias certainly discuss those matters, so those who understand science-as-encyclopedia but not science-as-process could interpret the absence of those issues from the collection of scientific knowledge as a value judgment about those areas of inquiry.

It isn’t, though (or need not be). Science as process cannot evaluate moral claims, nor can it evaluate claims entirely within the supernatural realm. Science-as-process ignores questions which cannot possibly be tested, so those matters simply belong elsewhere.


  1. #1 cope
    March 7, 2007

    I’m with you. The definition I give to my high school earth/space students is “the unending search for knowledge about the universe.” I expound on that by teaching about the various science process skills and explaining that science is done according to certain standards. I start this lesson (the first of the school year) by asking them to write down their answer to my question: “What is science?”. I love holding up a copy of their textbook and telling them “this isn’t science”.

  2. #2 Juliana
    March 7, 2007

    “Science as process cannot evaluate moral claims, nor can it evaluate claims entirely within the supernatural realm. Science-as-process ignores questions which cannot possibly be tested, so those matters simply belong elsewhere”

    Great brief!

  3. #3 emawkc
    March 7, 2007

    I like the definition of science-as-entertainment, as in “The process of watching really bad movies and making ostensibly witty, preferably snarky comments about the characters and situations within said movie. A pair of robot companions is also preferred.”

  4. #4 Dave S.
    March 7, 2007

    Defining science as a collection of facts is about as complete a picture as defining history as a collection of dates. Both are just raw material.