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Saturday, December 9, 2017

What is science?


Photo source: Wikimedia Commons, Luis MiguelBugallo Sanchez (Lmbuga)

Photo license: CC BY-SA 4.0


What is science? I have two definitions:


1. Science is a method of establishing knowledge through controlled experiments


2. Science is the study of any subject related to physics, chemistry or biology


Below is an explanation of each definition.


1. Science is a method of establishing knowledge through controlled experiments


According to the first definition, there is not a strict boundary between science and non-science because we can never be sure that every confounding variable has been controlled in an experiment. There is always a chance that an unseen variable could affect the experiment. In this regard, science is a subjective concept.


Is economics a science? I believe it depends on the specific study. I think the closest thing we have to controlled experiments in economics are quasi-experimental analyses which look at real world events that resemble controlled experiments. The problem with these studies is that there can be many confounding variables. For this reason, I believe it depends on each specific study for whether or not we can call it science.


2. Science is the study of any subject related to physics, chemistry or biology


The second definition of science has to do with physics, chemistry and biology. If you are studying a subject that involves any of these topics, I believe you are studying science. This definition also corresponds to science education in K-12 schools.


The rest of this post is a list of definitions of science from other philosophers.


Definitions of science from philosophers


Karl Popper (1902-1994)

1. "...statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable observations." (Conjectures and refutations. The growth of scientific knowledge, 1962)


Thomas Kuhn (1902-1996)

2. "...the role in scientific research of what I have since called 'paradigms'. These I take to be universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners." (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962)


Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994)

3. "...the separation of science and non-science is not only artificial but also detrimental to the advancement of knowledge. If we want to understand nature, if we want to master our physical surroundings, then we must use all ideas, all methods, and not just a small selection of them." (Against method, 1975)


Larry Laudan (1941-now)

4. "...there is no demarcation line between science and non-science, or between science and pseudo-science, which would win assent from a majority of philosophers. Nor is there one which should win acceptance from philosophers or anyone else." (The Demise of the Demarcation Problem, 1983)


Paul Thagard (1950-now):

5. "A theory of disciplines which purports to be scientific is pseudoscientific if and only if it has been less progressive than alternative theories over a long period of time and faces many unsolved problems; but the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in the relation to others and is selective in considering confirmation and disconfirmation." (Quoted in Science Education by John Gilbert)


William Cecil Dampier (1867-1952)

6. "[Science is] ordered knowledge of natural phenomena and of the relations between them." (Wikipedia: Demarcation problem, 10.4.22 UTC 05:50)


Marshall Clagett (1916-2005)

7. "[Science is] first the orderly and systematic comprehension, description and/or explanation of natural phenomena and secondly, the [mathematical and logical] tools necessary for the undertaking." (Wikipedia: Demarcation problem, 10.4.22 UTC 05:50)


David Pingree (1933-2005)

8. "Science is a systematic explanation of perceived or imaginary phenomena or else is based on such an explanation. Mathematics finds a place in science only as one of the symbolical languages in which scientific explanations may be expressed." (Wikipedia: Demarcation problem, 10.4.22 UTC 05:50)