Principles: Science


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Is there something wrong with "Science"?

It is not uncommon to hear "science" attacked from various sources. Yet there is a respect in which I think science is an ideal for which we ought to strive. Part of the problem can be resolved by recognizing that science means different things in different contexts, and what I think we should promote may be different from what someone else is attacking. Here are four kinds of science:

  • Science as technology.
  • Science as a profession.
  • Science as a set of claims.
  • Science as a method.
What I want to support is science as a method, and not necessarily the method that practicing scientists do use, but the method that ought to be used. First, let's look briefly at the other kinds of science and the nature of the complaints against them.

Often when people think of science they think of what can be done as a result of scientific advances - technology. These include such things as machinery used in factories, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, televisions, appliances, drugs and medical technology, earth satellites, and awesome weapons of destruction. Many of these have a down-side - factories may have bad working conditions, television soaks up people's time, medical technology like cloning creates ethical dilemmas, nuclear weapons could cause the end of life on our planet, and many aspects of technology are bad for the environment. The criticisms aren't really that the knowledge of how to do these things is bad so much as it is that actually doing them is bad. It seems entirely proper that we as a society should question, and in some cases limit, how technology is used.

Science as a profession refers to those people who make their living doing scientific research and the culture involved which determines how they get paid and how they get recognition. To a large extent scientists work at universities and government laboratories. Universities have a tenure system and a publish-or-perish principle for advancement. Often scientists are funded by large corporations that have a financial stake in the outcome of the research. Individual scientists may become engaged in bitter rivalries with other scientists, and may cling to pet ideas even when the evidence doesn't support them. There is no reason that the scientific community should be free from criticism or suggestion for reform.

Next there is science as a body of claims generally agreed upon by people in the scientific community. In the past there certainly have been "scientific" beliefs that turned out to be wrong, so it is reasonable to assume that some of the accepted beliefs of the present are likely to be wrong also. As a matter of fact, one of the principles of the scientific method is that all scientific facts are subject to revision in the light of further evidence. So it is perfectly acceptable, and in fact expected scientific behavior, to challenge principles currently recognized by science.

Finally there is science as a method. We hear about "the" scientific method, but when we try to find out exactly what that is, we find all kinds of different answers. For one thing, the methods used by astronomers are a lot different than the methods used by psychologists. I will propose a rather general definition that I hope would satisfy most proponents of other definitions. The scientific method is to test hypotheses by observing the real world while using whatever means are practical to reduce the chances of arriving at false conclusions. The exact nature of the methods must depend on the problem being addressed. In some cases testing a hypothesis involves performing controlled experiments, but obviously this is impossible when doing astronomy or archeology. It is always important that the principle being tested is well defined. It is important that the methods used and the results obtained are published, so that others can examine what was done to see if the conclusions really follow from the evidence. A careful description of the methods used allows others to repeat the experiment (or observation) to see if they get the same result.

Without a doubt, the Western scientific establishment is not 100% perfect in living up to this ideal. However if we look at alternative ways of arriving at beliefs, they are invariably far worse in terms of avoiding the possibility of false conclusions than what is normally done in the name of science. The way to improve on what the scientific community is doing is to be more scientific, not less.