What is Science?

Defining Science in a Scientific, Technological Age

The definition of science poses problems for people. Everyone seems to have an idea of what science is, but actually articulating it proves difficult. Doing so, however, is necessary to understand what science really is and what science is not. Understanding science is, in turn, necessary because of its power and influence in modern society. Ignorance about science simply isn’t a viable option.

The classical definition of science is simply the state of “knowing” — specifically theoretical knowledge as opposed the practical knowledge.

In the Middle Ages the term “science” came to be used interchangeably with “arts,” the word for such practical knowledge. Thus, “liberal arts” and “liberal sciences” meant basically the same thing.

Modern dictionaries are a bit more specific than that and offer a number of different ways in which the term science can be defined:

  • The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
  • Methodological activity, discipline, or study
  • An activity that appears to require study and method

For many purposes, these definitions can be adequate, but like so many other dictionary definitions of complex subjects, they are ultimately superficial and misleading. They only provide the barest minimum of information about the nature of science. As a consequence, the above definitions can be used to argue that even astrology or dowsing qualify as “science.”

Distinguishing modern science from other endeavors requires focusing in particular on its methodology — the means by which it achieves results. Fundamentally, then, science can be characterized as a method of obtaining reliable — though not infallible — knowledge about the universe around us. This knowledge includes both descriptions of what happens and explanations of why it happens.

The knowledge is reliable because it is continually tested and retested — much of science is heavily interdependent, which means that any test of any scientific idea entails testing other, related ideas at the same time. The knowledge is not infallible, because at no point do scientists assume that they have arrived at a final, definitive truth.

The knowledge involved is that about the universe around us, and that includes us as well. This is why science is naturalistic: it is all about natural processes and natural events. Science involves both description, which tells us what has happened, and explanation, which tells us why it happened. This latter point is an important factor because it is only through knowing why events occur that we can predict what else might occur in the future.

Science can also at times be characterized as a category or body of knowledge. When this is how the term is used, the speaker usually has in mind just the physical sciences (astronomy, geology) or biological sciences (zoology, botany). These are sometimes also called “empirical sciences,” as distinguished from the “formal sciences,” which encompass mathematics and formal logic.

Finally, science is often used to refer to the community of scientists and researchers who do scientific work.

It is this group of people who, through practicing science, effectively define what science is and how science is done. Philosophers of science attempt to describe what an ideal pursuit of science would look like, but it is the scientists who establish what it will really be.

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