What is Science?

What is Science?

OED definition (2a): Knowledge acquired by study; acquaintance with or mastery of any department of learning. Also †pl. (a person’s) various kinds of knowledge. (1)

I started this page by saying that defining Science is easy. But the more I think about it the harder it gets. Nevertheless what follows is what I believe Science is.

Part 1

Science is a method and a philosophy. It is based on 3 principles: Doubt, Openness and Curiosity.

Doubt is all-encompassing as in science nothing is ever certain. There are no concrete truths or infallible statements. This may be surprising for some but it is true, it is also a simplistic explanation for why everything in science is a ‘theory’. If there is reliable evidence for one theory then it is seen as likely or possible. Eventually enough evidence builds up that the theory becomes established and statistically very unlikely to be wrong. Nevertheless there is always the possibility of it being proved wrong and a close example of this was seen recently (Box. 1).

Openness follows close beside doubt. This is because, just as science can never say a theory is infallible, it also cannot say that a theory is completely wrong. If there is evidence for a theory it can always be considered, if there is none so far then there is always the possibility that evidence will be found in the future. Note however that for a theory to be credible it must have substantial direct evidence. So whilst science is open to new ideas, it does ask for some kind of backing for this theory to be taken seriously.

Finally curiosity is the driving force behind science as people are continuously searching for answers to unknown questions. It is with this curiosity that scientists systematically and methodically break down questions and problems and test them to find evidence for a possible answer. If we weren’t curious about anything, then we would never find evidence to back up our theories. If there was no evidence, then there would be no science.

Part 2

Box. 1. One recent example of a scientific theory being questioned (at the LHC in Switzerland) is the faster-than-light neutrino. It is widely taught that Einstein’s theory of special relativity means that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. However in 2011 a paper was published saying that this had been seen(2). The physics community went into uproar as this would mean a large amount of scientific theory would be invalidated, indeed it meant a lot of people’s life’s work would have been a waste of time. Some people like me got excited at the prospect of time travel. Nevertheless the matter was treated seriously and further experiments showed that there had been an error(3). The neutrino’s hadn’t broken the speed of light and, whilst some were pushing for a reform in the standard model of physics, Einstein’s theory stood this particular test.

Science is not a dictatorship. It does not tell people what is right and what is wrong and it certainly does not demand you to agree with fellow scientists. If no one ever questioned the current theories then we would never move forward. It is this questioning that has allowed many of the greatest advancements (e.g. atomic theory, germ theory or Copernican theory. The latter of course has been discredited, but is still relevant to this topic).

Science is also not a belief. People believe things, science only finds evidence. In fact the only disagreement I have with the OED definition above is the word ‘knowledge’, as it sounds too concrete.

So in conclusion science is a way of thinking that demands a systematic and methodical breakdown of questions to give evidence. It requires this evidence to back up a theory, old or new, but not a concrete truth. This theory must then always be treated with doubt as it may or may not be discredited at any time.


(1)                      http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/172672?redirectedFrom=science#eid

(2)                     http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110927/full/477520a.html

(3)                     http://arxiv.org/abs/1109.4897

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  1. Questions and Classifications « Science Defined

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