TOPIC 1
WHAT IS SCIENCE?

'The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself' (Gerard Piel)

Readings ­ Wolpert, Chapters 1, 2

 

INTRODUCTION

'In modern times, science is highly esteemed. Apparently it is a widely held belief that there is something special about science and its methods. The naming of some claim or line of reasoning or piece of research as "scientific" is done in a way that is intended to imply some kind of merit or special kind of reliability. But what, if anything, is so special about science?' (Chalmers, 1982)

Science is one of the defining features of our age, yet many people do not really understand what is science or how does one think scientifically. Is science so unique that one can clearly define it? Is there a 'scientific method' that one can write down or teach to other prospective scientists? If the answer is no (as one of us will argue in this course) then what is science? Is scientific knowledge special or valid?

Moreover, the terms 'science' and 'scientist' are recent, only in use since the 18th/19th Century AD. Before then, the discipline was usually termed 'natural philosophy'. Also, science arguably originated in Ancient Greece about 600 BC and its content has changed remarkably over time.

Definitions: Before going any further, it is probably useful to define a number of terms and concepts that we will stumble over in our readings. A number of the important ones are defined below.

Deductive reasoning (part of logic) - an accepted general (true or false) statement is applied to an individual case: all dogs are animals; this is a dog; therefore this is an animal. When the general premise in deductive reasoning is true, the deduction from it will be certain for all possible instances.

Empirical Method or Empiricism - relying on practical experience or observations as the sole source of knowledge.

Fact - what has really happened or is the case; truth known from actual experience or observation.

Falsification - testing an idea by trying to find an exception; observations which go against a particular theory and invalidate it.

Inductive reasoning (part of logic) - a set of individual cases is studied and, from the observations a general principle is formed: every metal I have tested expands when heated; therefore I can expect all metals to expand when heated. The principle formed in inductive reasoning is a workable theory but would be certain only when all possible instances have been examined. In practice, a general principle is considered valid if it is (1) derived from a large number of observations which (2) have been repeated under a variety of conditions, and for which (3) no accepted observation is in conflict with it.

Truth - a verifiable or indisputable fact, proposition, or principle.

 

WHAT IS SCIENCE?

So where do we begin in asking the fundamental question ­ what is science? We can approach the question from, perhaps, four perspectives: (1) what is the public perception of science, is science common-sensical, (3) what do scientists do, and (4) what is non-science?

 

(1) Public Perception of Science

Scientists are often perceived by non-scientists as interested in facts and a scientific method that provides a simple formula, which if faithfully followed, will lead to discovery. That perspective is commonly learned in grade school and high school. There, science is commonly taught as a series of facts or statements that are viewed to be correct or 'true'. Also, there is a tendency to teach that there is a straight-forward scientific method by which scientists add to the database of science. That is not the reality of science.

Common people have a number of problems understanding science. Some of the reasons for this are as follows:
- Most of science is based on mathematics; it is too technical.
- Understanding science is a hierarchical process; one needs to know basic concepts to understand more advanced concepts.
-It is often hard to put scientific concepts into everyday language.
- Science is often not practical.

Science can also be a scapegoat for people ignorant (or in some cases not ignorant) of it. Science is often perceived as:
1) materialistic
2) dehumanizing
3) taking away free will
4) removing magic from the world thus making it prosaic
5) destroying spiritual purpose or awareness
6) associated with weapons of mass destruction and pollution

 

(2) Science and Common Sense:

The thesis of Wolpert's book is that science is 'unnatural'. That is that science is not constructed by using 'common sense', and that doing science requires a conscious awareness of the pitfalls of 'common sense' thinking.

So what is common sense?

- It is characterized by its 'naturalness'.
- It is a group of beliefs shared by the vast proportion of the world population. One must realize, however, that no two people have exactly the same common sense.
- It provides a set of practical rules for dealing with everyday life. Common sense is useful!
- It is so much a part of everyday life that it becomes 'unconscious'.
- Common sense is learned by experience, authority, intuition, and logic.
- Common sense provides a mental model of the way in which the everyday world works.
- Common sense includes how, when, where, why,...; action, reaction; cause, effect. Only part of this is true science.

Essentially, science is not needed for most (all?) of everyday life. One can ride a bicycle without being able to explain the non-trivial physics of its behavior.

To sum up the common-sense (non-scientific) view of the world: 'While learning is essential, understanding is not'!

 

(3) How Do Scientists Do Science? (What are the elements of science):

Science
- tries to provide an explanation of nature at the most fundamental level.
- is comprised of theories that must be testable by confirmation and falsification; these theories must also be capable of modification or abandonment.
- must be built on observations that are independent of the individual observer.

Thomas Huxley called science 'trained common sense'. On the contrary, the ideas science generates and the method by which science is carried out are counter-intuitive and against common sense.

Another way of saying this is that scientific ideas cannot be acquired by simple inspection of phenomena and they are often outside everyday experience.

Scientists are always consciously evaluating how the whole world, at the most fundamental level, works.

What is the nature of the world?
- real, independent of any one observer.
- defined by a series of rules (laws) that restrict possible actions.
- mostly describable by mathematics.

 

True Statements:
'There is no method that enables scientific theories to be proven true or even probably true.'
'There is also no method that enables scientific theories to be conclusively disproved either.'
'Logic and deductive reasoning alone cannot establish the truth of factual statements. All that logic can offer in this connection is that if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true. But whether the premises are true is not a question that can be settled by an appeal to logic.'

 

(4) Science Versus Non-Science

Wolpert stresses that science and technology are two fundamentally different things. Technology is much older and has not depended on science for most of its development. (Although we will find that technology played a role in the development of science, especially astronomy and medicine.)

Although much of modern technology is based on science, this obscures fundamental differences between them. The failure to easily distinguish between science and technology has played a major role in obscuring the nature of science.

What is technology?
- much older than science
- technical crafts of cultures (including pre-Homo sapiens cultures!)
- engineering
- gives practical advantage to human activities
(by comparison, science is almost irrelevant)
- needs no understanding of process or theoretical development

What drives technological advance?
- demands of the market place
- expected value of invention

Think of significant structures and developments made without science.
- pyramids (and other 'seven wonders of the ancient world')
- ocean-going ships
- cathedrals/pagodas/mosques (remember the Taj Mahal)
- clocks
- mechanical machines

Science did not begin to significantly affect technology until the 19th century. But, science has always been dependent on technology for tools to investigate the world around us and the early sciences of astronomy and medicine must credit 'technology' for many of their initial observations.

Differences between science and technology

- one can patent technology (inventions) but not scientific ideas.
- people remember who has a scientific idea, but many technological
developments occurred anonymously.
- science is open and sharing while technology is often secretive.