What is science?

The mainstream media view of science seems to be :-

  •  Science is what scientists do.
  • What scientists do is science.

Doesn’t quite work does it? In too many cases, faith in science appears to be just that – faith. Or maybe another case of credentialism?

It may well be impossible to come up with a definition of science which always fits the real world, but credentialism has given us some dire science and shows every sign of delivering lots more. Yet we still have useful principles available to stop the rot, such as positivism.

I first came across positivism in my late teens, via A J Ayer’s book Language Truth and Logic. Ayer’s uncompromising view on meaningful discourse seems extreme to me, but since then I’ve always been a positivist even though it appears to have drifted into a philosophical backwater.

Which is a pity, because positivism provides us with a good working yardstick of what is and isn’t science. Falsifiability associated with Popper has its advantages too, but in many cases we seem to end up with credentialism – verifying credentials rather than physical reality. It is insidious too, because my references to Ayer and Popper could be seen as credentialism.

From Wikipedia :-

 Positivism is a philosophy of science based on the view that in the social as well as natural sciences, information derived from sensory experience, logical and mathematical treatments and reports of such data, are together the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge.

Suppose we replace authoritative with scientific to avoid at least one minefield of fruitless wrangling. If so, then among other advantages, positivism accounts for the basic similarities between science and engineering. Both are based on what works in a testable way in the real world. Both accept the need for new ideas if physical reality blows away the old ones. The similarity is no coincidence.

So why isn’t science as rigorously positivist as engineering?

I think it is because science has expanded as both a business and as a tool of political advocacy. For an early example of science as a business we need look no further than Sigmund Freud and the so-called science of psychoanalysis leading to psychotherapy.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Freudian psychoanalysis, it most certainly became a business which at best aligns itself only weakly with positivism. The id, ego and super-ego are not concepts amenable to physical verification.

Whether or not psychoanalysis was a model for other areas of science to expand beyond positivism I don’t know, but it may well have provided a paradigm of what is possible.

There are many complexities to what we call science, much of down to our excessive reliance on credentialism plus a lack of rigour when it comes to insisting on physical verification. Wouldn’t it be splendid if science journalists had a bash at verification before publication?

However, many scientific enterprises successfully mix positivist science with business science. In other cases, the business pushes the positivist principles to one side. It varies from field to field and even within disciplines.

Physics for example. Multiverse theories and string theories do not sit well with positivism, although they are not businesses either. Unless of course one is cynical enough to count them as entertainment.

For science as a political advocacy tool we have climate change, passive smoking and drugs policies. In these cases, positivism would introduce much needed rigor into the political exigencies. The unsurprising result is that these fields tend to attract scientists who pay more attention to credentials than physical reality.

So it’s a complex picture, but easy enough to see how the sidelining of physical principles such as positivism has led to problems with certain sciences. Unfortunately many people do not understand the rigor of positivism, nor its powerful methodological advantage. Too many scientists are not rigorous positivists.

Are they still scientists?

12 comments for “What is science?

  1. Greg Tingey
    January 30, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Science is not, & cannot be as positivist as engineering, if only because engineering (almost always) uses science that is already “fixed”. The problems may be horrendous, & you may be pushing the limits, but you are not usually making explorations.
    A huge amount of science is exploration – & you don’t know what you are going to find.
    Popper is a very good base to use, but it should not (& is not) the only one to follow, on its’ own, without other constraints.
    In many (but not all) branches of science the theory (of science) & the process go hand in hand.
    There is (or should be) a triangular method between:
    Observation, Experiment & Hypothesisation, with process & information feeding back, in both the directions along all three legs of that triangle.
    It never works out quite like that, of course, because Nature is difficult, scientists are human, mistakes are made etc ..
    BUT … when something like that set of operations is performed, then you will get solid results.

    Two important points.
    There are very solid sciences where direct experimentation is impossible (most of the time) – Astronomy & Geology are the classic examples. This problem is overcome as far as possible by very careful checking, rechecking & cross-checking of results & observations. And, in mopre recent years (the past 50) the intereactions with other bodies of knowledge interacting with the aforementioned, giving extra insights & checks.
    The other problem is nomenclature.
    In science, a THEORY is as good as it gets – it is an deep underlying explanation for a wide variety of phenomena.
    There arn’t very many real theories, in the scientific sense, out there, at all.
    Whereas, wht most people call a “theory” is an hypothesis, which is hopefully, testable.
    [This last, of course is certainly a present weakness of the so called “string theory” which would be better called the string hypothesis….]
    But, even here, there is a good reason for all of this.
    It has been known for well over 60 years, that QM & General Relativity do not match up. Yet both work, extremely well & make accurate predictions, which can be & are tested.
    Therefore it is obvious we have, somewhere “hidden variables” (A real, actual technical term used legitimately for this sort of problem) AND there must be an underlying explanation, which we cannot presently “see” for these anomalies.
    Hence the various hypotheses, including “string” that are floating around. They are real attempts (all presently unsucessful) to solve known problems. A very valid scientific endeavour, in other words.

    You specifically mention three areas, which are unsuprising to me, even though the secind two are scientifically speaking unimportant.
    1] Climate change: The climate IS changing. It is changing more than we would expect from known energy inputs from outside the Earth.
    The extremely strong suspicion (better than 95%) is that humanity’s actions are the reasons for this. And it is too important, in an engineering & political sense, to ignore.
    As was the “ozone hole” problem (caused by the uncontrolled release of “CFC’s” into the environment) before it.
    2] Passive Smoking: This is one where a perfectly reasonable precaution, especially for protecting developing children from harm has been siezed on by politicians & puritans. Personally, I loathe smoking & avoid its’ effects if I can, & I DO NOT WANT selfish smokers emitting their fumes into my lungs. At the same time,I see no harm, to others of their smoking, provided I don’t have to breathe it.
    It’s a classic case of an out-of-control bandwagon, which is being used as a stalking-horse by the anti-drink campaigners who have no scientific basis for theor claims, whatsoever, shall we note.
    3} Drugs policy: Don’t know what you mean by this, since it is very clear that no government, anywhere, has a rational or science-based drugs policy.
    The logical route would be legalise everything, regulate said drugs’ purity & sell through existing pharmacies (in the UK). But no politician seem even prepared to contemplate such.
    What has this last to do with science?
    Nothing at all.

    Lastly you mention Sigmund Fraud.
    No, that was deliberate. It is well-known that his proposition are false & that his precriptions do not work.
    Sir Peter Medawar blew S F away many years ago.
    Why do people still follow this nonsense?
    For the same reaon that peole follow religion – it gives them “comfort” AND, very importantly, there is a huge (medical) vested interest in keeping it going.
    Lets take a classic example: “ME” (“Royal Free Disease”) is proven to be a real, physical condition, caused by an opportunistic virus that attacks people under particular stress-conditions, where their internal “chemical” defences are partially down. Physical traces of the effects of the virus’ attack are found.
    Yet, there is a large body of so-called “medical opinion” (All male, often christian) that prefers to deny this proven truth ….
    They are steadily losing ground, but they are still around.

    • Audrey Quattro
      January 30, 2013 at 10:35 pm

      How can you claim:

      “Observation, Experiment & Hypothesisation, with process & information feeding back, in both the directions along all three legs of that triangle.”

      and then follow it up with:

      “The extremely strong suspicion (better than 95%) is that humanity’s actions are the reasons for this [AGW]. And it is too important, in an engineering & political sense, to ignore.”??

      missing out TWO of those aforementioned highly regarded processes?

      • Greg Tingey
        January 31, 2013 at 8:16 am

        Experiment has consisted of running many thousands of computer models, of increasing sophistication & accuracy over many years … throwing out those that do not fit observations.
        Gradually, very gradually, one’s conclusions become more definite.
        As I said – this does not happen in ALL sciences.
        It’s very difficult to do experimens in Astronomy & Geology for instance, yet you’d not deny them as science subjects, would you?

        • SteveW
          January 31, 2013 at 9:59 am

          Neither would I, as you appear to be doing, class running a model on a computer (no matter how sophisticated one claims the model to be) as an ‘experiment’.
          Models are programmed by one or more people and reflect the assumptions they have made. Furthermore, the climate models have failed miserably to reflect what’s actually happening to our climate on both the micro and macro (or regional and global if you prefer) levels.
          Until such point in time as the null hypothesis is proven to be inadequate, it should stand as the a priori assumption used to explain what’s happening. As far as climate is concerned, the null hypothesis ought to remain one of attribution to natural variation until things move outside the bounds of any (direct/indirect) experience of prior natural variations. the warming period up to circa 2000 was in no way materially different from the warming earlier in the 20th century which is happily attributed by all to natural processes – why the need for a new explanation now?

          • January 31, 2013 at 8:30 pm

            “Until such point in time as the null hypothesis is proven to be inadequate, it should stand as the a priori assumption used to explain what’s happening.”

            Good point. Another of the basics too many seem to forget.

  2. SteveW
    January 30, 2013 at 9:46 am

    Call me old fashioned, but I’ll go along with R.P.Feynman on ‘what is science’.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYPapE-3FRw
    Or for those with a shorter attention span, here’s just the first minute of it…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b240PGCMwV0

  3. Greg Tingey
    January 30, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Also, I’ve remembered an older definition:

    “We (The Merchants of Light) make up the noblest foundation that ever was upon the Earth. For the end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and the secret nature of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”
    Sir Francis Bacon – “The New Atlantis” 1624-7

    That’ll do nicely!

    • January 30, 2013 at 10:44 am

      Science is not, & cannot be as positivist as engineering, if only because engineering (almost always) uses science that is already “fixed”.

      Yes but even engineering experiments – look at the NASA rockets. A few deaths here and there.

      • Greg Tingey
        January 30, 2013 at 1:42 pm

        And so?
        In what way does this invalidate my argument?
        I suggest you read the late J E Gordon’s classic: “Structures (or why things don’t fall down)”
        Which actually includes quite lot of falling-down, actually!

  4. January 30, 2013 at 10:44 am

    Science is not, & cannot be as positivist as engineering, if only because engineering (almost always) uses science that is already “fixed”.

    Yes but even engineering experiments – look at the NASA rockets. A few deaths here and there.

    • January 30, 2013 at 5:41 pm

      James; Engineering, especially at the prototyping stage, is how scientific concepts are tested. There is often a lot of head scratching and “Well that didn’t work then.” followed by “Well what if we try it this way?” Because sometimes theory has to be re-written or even scrapped, even when computer models say a given concept ‘should’ work.

      In Research & Development especially, the line between ‘Engineer’ and ‘Scientist’ can often get a little blurred. There’s a lot more of this going on than one might think. A classic example occurred at Bletchley park 1943-44. Alan Turing and Max Newman came up with some of the maths, but it took GPO Engineer Tommy Flowers to turn the base concepts into the world’s first true electronic computer ‘Colossus’. Who did the real ‘science’? Turing? Newman? Flowers? I strongly suspect they all did. To argue that ‘Engineering’ and ‘Science’, positivist or not, are two disparate entities, is I think a false dichotomy.

      • January 31, 2013 at 8:33 pm

        “To argue that ‘Engineering’ and ‘Science’, positivist or not, are two disparate entities, is I think a false dichotomy.”

        I agree, it is a false dichotomy and we would have a much clearer idea of what science can and cannot achieve if we got rid of it.

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