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What is Science?

Single Reality. Science is a way to look at reality. Reality is observed, if possible measured, in a way that is as objective and reproducable as possible. There is only a single physical reality.

Objective Observations put into Scientific Language. Science creates languages to describe the observations. Either new words are created or old words get a more specific, well-defined meaning. There is no consistent language of science but many different jargons serving different parts of science.

Theories for Predictions. Science creates theories that put observations into a useful order of cause-effect relationships. These theories may allow to understand phenomena, but - more important - to make predictions that can be compared to reality. Only at this stage science becomes applicable to economy or society.

Science Society. Science works within an academic society according to certain rules and values. Original publications are of primary importance to work up the hierarchy. Famous universities, renowned journals, scientific networks, access to fundings play an important role (in the end the Nobel Price). Authority and reputation are the cornerstones of this system.

What is a Scientific Theory - Stephen W. Hawking

"In order to talk about the nature of the universe and to discuss questions such as whether it has a beginning or an end, you have to be clear about what a scientific theory is. I shall take the simpleminded view that a theory is just a model of the universe or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our mind and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean). A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the result of future observations. For example, Aristotle's theory that everything was made out of four elements, earth, air, fire and water, was simple enough to qualify, but it did not make any definite predictions. On the other hand, Newton's theory of gravity was based on an even simpler model, in which bodies attracted each other with a force that was proportional to a quantity called their mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Yet it predicts the motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets to a high degree of accuracy.

Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory. As philosopher of science KarlPopper has emphasized, a good theory is characterized by the fact that it makes a large number of predictions that could in principle be disproved or falsified by observation. Each time new experiments are observed to agree with the predictions the theory survives, and our confidence in it is increased; but if ever a new observation is found to disagree, we have to abandon or modify the theory. At least that is what is supposed to happen, but you can always question the competence of the person who carried out the observation."

Stephen W. Hawking, in "A Brief History of Time", p. 11

The quotation serves the purpose to show how on of the greatest living scientist looks at science and how naturally the view of the scientific process by KarlPopper is accepted as appropriate. -- HelmutLeitner

Types of Science

Science is at least broken up into:

Each of these investigate a different domain with different characteristics that require different methods to gain new insight into them.

Science is measured against reliability and validity. Reliability is how likely the result can be reproduced by another person. Validity is how closely the result corresponds to the situation at hand. The natural sciences have the easiest time of doing this since their frame of investigation is nearly uniform for all observers and it doesn't change that much over time. Thus, two groups doing the same experiment in different locations at different times should get the same result. Further, the results of an experiment do not significantly affect future investigation. That is, natural science is nearly mutually exclusive.

That isn't the case with social sciences. The frame of investigation varies for all observers, and it changes frequently over time. Worse, the results of an experiment can significantly change the results of future experiments. If we discover that purple people run slower than green people, purple people may be inspired to train, and eventually they as a group may come to run faster than green people.

Natural sciences also benefit from subject-object dichotomy, since it is essentially solipsist. The observer, being humans, cannot gain direct access to the frame of investigation. The external world is a substratum to the social or cognitive world, and thus nothing we think can change it. While it is frequently the case that scientists collectively hold some ridiculous conceit for some period of time due to PeerPressure and SocialNormalization, eventually the Truth (i.e. the external frame) will assert itself after enough observations. The nice thing about the external world is that at certain sizes, energies, and speeds it happens to be consistent and coherent according to Classical Logic (or, rather, Classical Logic is a reflection of the natural universe at a human-oriented frame of reference), and thus it is difficult to hold an illusion for too long before things crumble apart.

The social sciences do not operate like this. First, the observer is intimately a subject in the linguistic system that formulates the frame of investigation. While there are techniques to limit the degree to which the observer transfers information into the socio-linguistic network (society) she is investigating, fundamentally the very act of observation can transfer transformative information into the network. Unobtrusive observation fares better, but even then the observer's modelling system is affected by the frame being observed. Note that Classical Logic does not change by slamming particles together, but a social scientist's stereotypes of the situation might.

As a subject in the network, then, sometimes it's best to just accept this and invert the need to monkey the subject-object dichotomy from the natural science. The researcher can become a full and active participant in the society being observed, even attempting to actively change it in some radical way. The reliability may be low, but the validity may be high. Or not. We're talking about storytelling.

For what it's worth, Science has not reconciled this problem. The need for Science to be repeatably testable and means that its investigations should not modify the observed frame. Politics is like a science that is testable, but not repeatably so. Still, we do learn things over time about how to run a society, but we do not know how to do this as efficiently as we investigate the natural world.

Potential Problems of Science

Not Humble. Science tends to overestimate its own achievements and importance. In building authority, the certainty of knowledge often becomes misrepresented. A scientific "best guess" or "state of the art" easily becomes a false "truth". Politics and economy request "the right answers" for their money in exchange. Let's forget that most of science is built on simplification. Humbleness doesn't fit in.

Not Open. Science tends to diminish the reality of phenomena that are hard to observe or measure. Love, joy, beauty or consciousness have no equivalent theories or terms in science. So science and its application - technology - are basically unable to produce joy or beauty. The problem is not so much, that science can't cope with these, but that we have lost the confidence to be able to judge in terms of these superior values. For example: modern architecture strives for new technical effects, not that people have joy, perceive beauty or feel at home.

Not Freedom of Will. Science works primarily in a deterministic cause-effect thinking model. The natural scientific model of a human being or mind is that of a machine. This is the case, even though we know and experience every day, that it is different. Deterministic thinking is - although we have the picture of "clockworks versus clouds" - dominating our modeling the world in a way that hinders to see and solve problems correctly. How shall a society of free people be built, when we are effectively disabled to think about what "free" means.

Not Understandable. Science tends to work in an analytical way towards miniscule details, losing the big picture. This is a problem from the scientific system. It is much easier to specialize on a detail and observe something new (and publish) than to find new ways to synthesize a picture (and be accepted and publish). Although the big pictures are much more needed to make science accessable and useful to the public.

No Spirit. Sciencist often falsely assume that an objective reality is all that we can understand and know.

Our understanding is naturally limited by what the brightest minds can understand, but the second part is even more problematic because it means that science will not even consider external influences which are outside of the whole. So, for example, the notion of a creator of the universe that exists outside the universe is unscientific, because there is no possible evidence that could prove (even to a small degree) the existence of such a creator. Science simply says nothing about such a creator and many people mistake this silence for negation - worse, some people turn to science searching for an assent to their beliefs about the creator (or a lack thereof) when really the question is not a scientific one at all. These persons are asking a question in the wrong language, and, unsurprisingly, tend to come up with nonsense for an answer.


One interesting idea I've heard about Science (capital S) is that it is instrinically Protestant, specifically Calvinist, which is why it doesn't translate well to other cultures. -- SunirShah

This idea is highly questionable. The Muslim world led the world in science during Islam's golden age. There have been many Jews in scientific research. What the Jewish and Muslim cultures had in common were strong rationalist traditions. Indian mathematicians discovered ideas in math and astronomy long before Luther. AdinaLevin

My current thoughts on science are here [science] but I am not sure if this stuff is OnTopic and also it might cut a little close to philosophy of religion. Incidentally, don't get put off by copyright disclaimer meatball terms are fine. --AndrewCates

Classical logic is incomplete. It only works in certain frames, particularly discrete and mutually exclusive frames. There are other logics, like something I call the Logic of Flows. -- SunirShah

Do you mean that we are too focused on the moment that we miss the process? And, in fact, our language is very poor in describing processes in any other way then as a sequence of events. -- Gideon FormerContributor?

Exactly. We focus on events out of time and in "measurable" stasis, rather than seeing the world as fluid. Hence an obsession with TheIndividual in 19th and 20th century Western culture which is a, erm, logical end result of Greek classical logic. Other societies do not have such an atemporal viewpoint, but rather take a LongView?. Of course, you might get into Eastern Fatalism as well. The advantage of only thinking about the next quarter and never looking back is that things are always capable of changing. The disadvantage is that things can get worse. The only LongNow memory we have to stave ourselves against destruction is ArchitecturalCollaboration? (i.e. putting a rail on a cliff's edge) or other things embedded in an external frame, which may include a PrintCulture? TextAsObject? frame (i.e. a LegalSolution).

The difference would be trying to control each and every single spammer by IP address or content rather than looking at spam as a statistical problem of flows. If we create an opportunity, out of the mass of AnIndividuals, there will be some pressure to exploit that opportunity. If we close that opportunity, that mass of individuals will be blocked. If we make that opportunity expensive, a smaller number of those individuals will try. At some point, the level is tolerable, like dust in a room. It's can never be zero, but we want it to be tolerable. We do not live in a hermetically sealed room, but instead we close the doors & windows and dust. The SurgeProtector is about this as well; block major energy bursts so that TheCollective can get the rest. Classical logic is incapable of dealing with this, which is why statistics was invented. (cf. http://www.paulgraham.com/spam.html)

The interesting thing about decomposing things down over and over again, at a certain point you have so much data you can only analyze it in a logic of flows (i.e. statistically). PostModern science is about that, and that is partially why it investigates communities rather than individuals. And a lot of that has to do with the growth of computers in the investigation of science since there was enough power to number crunch vast reems of data, and thus the impetus to collect it. At least that's the case in the social sciences. -- SunirShah

I sometimes wonder how science would have developed if we would have had fast computers in the 17th century. I guess our mathematics would look very differently: we would have invested much more effort in to algoritmics instead I guess. This means in a sense that science is a subjective view influenced heavily by language, history and chance, and is in fact not an objective view of the world. -- Gideon FormerContributor?

I like some line of thoughts Andrew follows on his webpage. He talks about the "explanatory power" and "predictive power" of science. One could add "descriptive power" as a first stage. This - together with noting the power-element of science - could create another view onto science. -- HelmutLeitner

Science should not have dogmas, it should have theories. Science should not have assumptions, it should have hypotheses. Both hypotheses and theories are used to guide exploration of the unknown, but they are always tentative and open to refutation and redesign. Science is a process by which a community of information gathering and processing units (observers) cooperate to produce representations (models) of physical systems and understanding of physical reality. We have no way of knowing what physical reality includes until we explore.

Carl Sagan took seriously the idea that there might be a creator or intelligent designer. His novel Contact explores the issue of the form that might be taken by evidence for a creator of our universe. Francis Crick took seriously the idea that life on Earth could have originated somewhere off of Earth. It is possible to hypothesize that intelligent beings from another planet have in the past intervened in the development of life on Earth, possibly creating new forms of terrestrial life. We simply have no existing data to support these creation hypotheses.

If mathematics is the queen of science, physics must be the king. It has been a common sociological phenomenon that many physicists, ignorant of other sciences, assume that the features of physical science define all of science. In particular, some physicists have made a dogma out of the idea that science MUST make predictions. Scientists from other branches of science (such as Ernst Mayr) have made to point that prediction is of little importance to some scientific endeavors. Some aspects of the universe are worthy of scientific study but do not readily lend themselves to prediction. Physicists often dismiss such scientific disciplines as butterfly collecting, but that does not stop other scientists from exploring topics such as the diversity and evolution of life. -- JohnSchmidt

Maybe we do have data to support these and other hypotheses, but are we limited by our cultural, philosophical, or religious bias from understanding them? It's like not being able to see a reality which is stranger then we are able to imagine. A reality for which we don't even have the proper words and syntax to express our ideas in. This is a human limitation, not a scientific limitation.

Just look at the hypotheses of the earth going around the sun. All the evidence was there for many centuries and still it did not fit the scientific framework of the time. When facts don't fit the framework, the facts are filtered out, while the framework remains. How is a scientist going to DefendAgainstCulturalBias? of her time?

[There are things you can not say] because they break the framework most powerful people are working on. Frameworks which they have build their whole careers upon. Often it takes generations for frameworks to change. Heretics are often punished, only a few hundred years ago one could be put to death for expressing the idear in the previous paragraph. Only much later, when the frameworks have changed, will their genius be recognised.

Science to me is no more then a idea: A general methode of investigation. I don't belief any more in Science (with a big S) or in scientific proof. It's all just interpretation based on filtered facts, while not all filters are known. The Truth is only one of many truths, the truth as we see it today; Tomorrow is another day, maybe it will bring it's own truth? -- Gideon FormerContributor?

This is a remarkably anti-science screed (not the discussion afterwards) for a page with a very neutral title and fairly neutral introduction. "Science is a way of describing the world....SUITABLE FOR JOYLESS EGOTISTS WHO HATE BEAUTY AND WISH TO DESTROY FREEDOM AND UNDERSTANDING." Unless someone wants to move this to WhatsWrongWithScience?, I will begin making additions to the top portion of the page to describe the enormous benefits of classical logic, mathematics, and scientific inquiry. -- JasonCorley

You really don't have to shout. You have a good point, although it might be more WhatsWrongWithCurrentScienceCulture?.

Science as a tool has enormous benefits. However, no tool is useful for all things and one needs extreme skill to handle any tool. Especially a hard to use and powerful tool like science. Most of the problems noted above have nothing to do with science, but with the sad fact that most scientist don't really have the skill and sophistication to handle the power of this tool. Most scientist suck at science. Human nature may not be compatible.

Maybe we could redefine Science? Maybe this should be the number one task of every scientist. What is there beyond science? It there some tool which is more powerful and more suitable then science? Maybe we are looking for a new kind of science? Current science has its roots in the renaissance, maybe this is TheSecondRenaissance? where we find ourselves in need of a better tool then good old science? -- Gideon FormerContributor?

Jason, Gideon, I wonder why you see this page primarily negative. Science has positive and negative aspects and both are represented. Science is a way to look at the world and as many people as possible (everybody) should understand the fundamentals, the methods and the limits. There are no stronger tools for the same purpose, but we can use the tools more skillfully. -- HelmutLeitner

Helmut, the good point I was referring to was that idea that maybe part of the things on this page should get their own page. I have no problem with science in itself nor with this page as such, just that some parts are maybe a little off-topic.

I'm not sure that there are no stronger tools then science, but maybe these tools could augment science instead of replacing it? I tend to agree that we need more people to understand the fundamentals and principles of science. We need to promote [Scholarship].

The science in scholarship are the principles and fundamental concepts of investigation, research and objective peer review. This can be augmented to deal with new subjects of research when the time comes. This is the kind of science which should be taught and explained to as much people as posible. Scholarship does not enforce a framework upon its users, it allows the freedom to augment and extend it when needed.

There is however another kind of Science, the popular cultural framework of natural philosophy which claims to contains The One and Only Scientific Truth. It has little to nothing to do with the science from the previous paragraph. It will be very damaging to humanity if this where to become a new (false) religion where the framework of thought and adherents to the opinions of some elite (dogma) are more important than objective research and honest facts.

We should really have two words for these concepts. Maybe we should use ScientificMethod? [1] for the fundamental principles and concepts, but use NaturalPhilosophy? [2] when we talk about the current populair framework? This distinction would clean up much of the confusion of the page. -- Gideon FormerContributor?

I like the idea that science need some kind of update. Modern science started in a time when most people could not have direct access to the activity of scientists. It is now possible to put every working scientist on the internet. Maybe if all scientific activity took place in the public domain in a open source fashion, there would be less of a division between the world of science and the rest of society. Everyone agrees that science can have powerful impacts on society. Maybe this power needs to be regulated by making science (particularly science funded by tax dollars) more open to public review. -- JohnSchmidt

Let us also not forget that the FirstRenaissance? caused a reading culture to emerge, perhaps this SecondRenaissance? will cause a scholarship culture to emerge? Like then it would have been hard to imagine a world where most (if not all) people could read. In turn it maybe hard for us to imagine a world of scholars, just try it. This could however be a posible outcome. Both blogs and wiki seem to point in this direction. (This is one of the themes of meatball it seems).

This will change scholarship and the whole concept of reading/writing; no longer will it be author to audience but instead it will become peers to peers (notice the plural). Likewise science will chance in the process, it may return to its root meaning (latin: knowledge). -- Gideon FormerContributor?

Serious Factual Problems With The "Problems With Science"

As I am beginning to edit, I am noticing that the "problems with science" section appears to be full of, well, how can I put this diplomatically - falsehoods. Alternately, if they are not falsehoods, they are not actually talking about science. "Not humble"? Compared to what other human endeavour? A method of seeing the world that depends almost entirely on carefully carving out a piece of ignorance from a vast sea of uncertainty is not humble? It says "A scientific "best guess" or "state of the art" easily becomes a false "truth"." A) in what universe? and B) even if it did, how is that conceivably a fault that can be laid at science's feet, when it's a tremendously unscientific view?

The bit about modern architecture being sterile and technical and completely ignoring emotion and anything not easily quantifiable also appears factually incorrect. I just picked a random architectural journal from Google, [Architecture News], and on the front page at this moment (31 Jul 2005) is an article about a Penn Station renovation that is aimed at keeping the famous sky-lit appearance of the historical (and certainly emotion-laden) New York landmark, an article about reclaiming an industrially blighted San Mateo area as a public park with essentially the whole article given over to examining how to allude to nature in every piece of the architectural design of the park, and, one click away in the "Design and Trends" section is a piece entirely about emotion - an analysis of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. This is just with a couple of clicks. I am sure that an architectural professional could tell us far more about the subject than just these few blurbs.

My cognitive science knowledge is limited, but I can tell you that even with the tiny introductory course that I took several years ago, I know that the statement "The natural scientific model of a human being or mind is that of a machine." is one hundred percent incorrect. That is not even remotely close to where cognitive science is, or at least how it is taught. And the question "How shall a society of free people be built, when we are effectively disabled to think about what "free" means?" again seems to be talking about something other than science altogether. If we can't think about what 'free' means, how is that science's fault? How is that a "problem with science"?

The only thing I could find to salvage at all is the very last of the "problems", regarding science's completeness. I've done what I can to fix it, but there really is a lot to do up there and I'm wondering, given the direction the discussion is going (more fruitful, less about science) if the page should just be split up and started over. -- JasonCorley

Jason: Replace natural scientific with natural philosophical and that statement about the mind as a machine is correct. Lack of completeness is not really a problem, because we barely know al the questions to ask so how could be ever have all the answers? Depending on where you are in this page the word science can mean anything: ScientificMethod?, NaturalPhilosophy?, ScientificCommunity? or AcademicCommunity? and more. It does not really answer the question WhatIsScience? very well.

What I think has happend, is that one or some of the pages which point here had a discussion (I may have participated) which caused this page to be written with a minor bias towards the subject. At that time we did not realize that our usage of the word science was very broad and under-defined. I think the time has come to resolve this with a compleet rewrite. But first I want to read some of the pages which point here to understand the usage of WhatIsScience. -- Gideon FormerContributor?

An excellent resource is Latour's Science in Action, which I'm building a summary & roadmap on SocialConstructionOfScience. -- SunirShah

I think the page is pretty good as it is (no wonder, I wrote a large number of the initial paragraphs). It doesn't claim to talk about the science community and it doesn't. A sociological perception of science won't help much, because it contains increased constructivism. Suddenly the importance of "controversy" and "rhetoric" comes in. This is not how science is done or advanced. It comes afterwards, when you want recognition. It's human cover.

If I remember correctly, WhatIsScience was originally a reaction to the question whether Meatball does scientific work and what that means in this context. In my opinion it means: to observe, to explore, to create language, to exchange experiences, to build models, to look whether the models produce useful results. Natural science show best how this may work, it has the most valuable results, it is the ideal that others try to follow.

Costin noted in private communication, criticising pages like WhatIsScience, that a lot of world view topics and politics crept into Meatball recently. I think this is true, one can observe it. I'm not sure, whether this is good or bad. Obviously, these topics are interesting to Meatball's current active members, so this content is accepted. It probably wouldn't have been three years ago. This creates an inconsistency, especially if certain political statements are rejected. Suddenly the question turns up, whether MeatballWiki has a political color - it would then cease to be like a society.

Science is also always under attack of political forces that want to exploit the term. Non-science wants to sell as science (for example Marxism). Politics constantly wants to buy science, for example to change perception (e. g. to deny global change of climate from air pollution). But in giving such examples, one becomes political at the same moment. This is the point to become realistic and simple, not philosophical, sociological and complex. -- HelmutLeitner

All this means that science has become overloaded with different and incompatible meanings which makes it a non-sense term in practice. Without a clear and neutral definition one can not use it anymore. This confusion only serves the people who want to exploit this term for their own agenda. Therefor I advised the use of different terms instead. For now I suggest that we refrain from rewriting until we come to some consensus about the meaning of science on this page. -- Gideon FormerContributor?

Gideon, perhaps you could put an alternative view side by side. Currently it's totally unclear to me, which direction this could lead. -- HelmutLeitner

I must confess that the potential problems section does not reflect what I expect science to be. Instead, it looks like a prejudice collection from people outside of science, or an analysis of the social effects of science. It is not at all a reflection of how I viewed myself while I studied biology, nor a reflection of what our professors seemed to believe. Perhaps we can just look at the first point in that list: Not Humble. How do I even start my argument when my experience indicates that is not true? There's no example for this point, so I can't criticise the interpretation or selection of the example. Should I post a counter-example? Should I cite Socrates? Talk about Popper? Maybe that's part of the frustration Gideon feels as well. -- AlexSchroeder

The problem relates to the title of the page vs. the content. "WhatIsScience" leads to invalid sentences like "Science tends to overestimate its own achievements and importance." 'Science' is not an actor, but a process, and it's not true that the process of Science leads inevitably to hubris. WhatIsScience is more accurately specified on SocialConstructionOfScience, but that only looks at it anthropologically rather than from the myths and ideals and objectives that motivate Science, which is probably more what this page ought to be. What's written here is more of a Social Criticism of Scientists, which is not very convincing in its current "Science is" form. -- SunirShah

Mmmh, maybe a language or perception problem? I'm not responsible for all points of the "potential problems" section, but for the majority. "potential" doesn't mean "always existing", it means "inherent", maybe "lurking below the surface". That people take their business more serious than it is, is a general problem, not a social construction. For the preacher his belief is most important, for the artist the culture, for the politician his political view, for the scientist his scientific truth, for the entrepreneur the money, most philosophers think their theories supreme, Plato thought he (the philosopher) should sit on the throne. Einstein wasn't humble when he said "God doesn't throw dice", obviously he felt to know about the nature of God (and he was wrong). Artifical Intelligence wasn't humble about its goals and ETAs. No scientist going for funding is humble or even realistic about what he will achieve. These problems are not everywhere, but they can be found regularly and they are not constructed but part of human nature or the systems. Just as I can state without doubt that "openness" is a potential problem of online communities. Maybe InherentProblemsOfScience? to avoid thinking that science is meant to be criticised unfairly. -- HelmutLeitner

I've been experimenting recently with avoiding the word "science". I still talk about the same things, but I substitute some other, more specific word than the generic "science" or "scientists", as suggested by Gideon. For example, "Physicists invented the atomic bomb". "Chemists synthesized aspirin". "Experimental physicists invented the transistor. Later, quantum physicists explained the principles of operation of the transistor." "Mechanical engineers invented the steam locomotive and Jell-O(TM)."

It helps me avoid pointless debates on the definition of terms. (Did "scientists" send a man to the moon, or was it "engineers"? Or perhaps "technologists"?) (Are the people who set up "political experiments" really scientists?)

But perhaps I'm succumbing to exactly the sort of "reductionist" thinking that AndrewCates warns about. -- DavidCary


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