What is ‘science,’ anyway?

As the Manitoban’s new Science Reporter, I figured it might be a good idea to find out what “science” actually is. Ok, so I know the sorts of things I’d like to write about: biology, evolution, cognitive and neuro-science, geology, anthropology, etc., and I have an idea of what people mean when they talk about “science.” I even directly participate in the scientific process as a graduate student and research assistant in the department of psychology (though some might attempt to argue with the inclusion of psychology as a science.) Still, I wanted to know specifically what it is that unifies the wide assortment of topics and practices that seem to fall under the banner of “science.” I decided to ask University of Manitoba philosopher of science Rhonda Martens how she would define it.

“One could write a book [. . . or series of books] on this question,” she answers, assuaging my growing insecurity about the ostensibly obvious and simple question. According to Martens, historical understandings of science have included practices such as magic and astrology in addition to practices that we currently think of as scientific. She does not believe that this means we are simply more rational today than our medieval counterparts, but rather that the unsuccessful elements have been lost as more successful methodologies have replaced them. In regards to a current definition of science, “it is extremely difficult to come up with a definition that includes all of the practices that we think of as science while excluding those that we think of as non-sciences,” she asserts.

To this end, Dr. Martens uses a tactic which is typical of philosophers trying to get their students engaged in and knowledgeable of the topic at hand. She asks for their ideas about how science is defined, and then politely shoots them all down with counter-examples. For instance, some students suggest that science involves the use of the experimental method, to which she reminds them of observational studies within fields like astronomy.

“The process continues similarly for any other suggestions they offer. The word ‘science’ refers to an extremely diverse set of practices,” she summarizes, “and most philosophers of science today no longer focus on theorizing about science as a whole. Instead, we tend to focus on a particular area of science.”

While there may not be one single entity we can clearly label “science,” all scientific theories do have at least one thing in common: they are falsifiable. This idea was put forth by famous philosopher Karl Popper in the 1930s and has gained widespread acceptance throughout the scientific community. “Pretty much every scientist I know likes Karl Popper and his ideas about falsificationism,” Martens confirms. “Popper argued that theories which can’t be proven wrong can’t be properly tested,” she points out. This means that a scientific theory must specify some evidence that, if encountered, could disprove it. For example, the theory “all swans are white,” is technically a scientific theory since we can specify exactly what it would take for this theory to be disproven — namely, a non-white swan. “For another kind of example,” Martens continues, “I can offer a theory that is consistent with all possible evidence, past, present and future, that we might encounter. The theory is, “everything is the way it is because God made it that way.” Now this theory might be true, but since there is no possible observation that might show it to be false, it can’t be put to a hard test.”

For instance , one might think that the fossil record disproves the theory that everything is the way it is because God made it that way. However, proponents of the “God theory” could simply argue that God put those fossils there to test our faith. Similarly, any evidence encountered can be assumed to be God’s doing, precluding any possibility of falsifiability.

Freudian psychoanalytic theory is also notorious for its lack of falsifiability, and these inauspicious beginnings may account for psychology’s current struggle for acceptance as a science. Any evidence that could seemingly contradict Freudian theory — for example, a male patient who is claiming not to be in love with his mother — was somehow interpreted and manipulated so as to be consistent with Freud’s theories. In this case, and many others, claiming that the patient was simply in denial tended to serve this purpose. Again, this is not to say that Freud’s theories aren’t true. It may very well be the case that the Freudian conceptualization of psychology is completely accurate. We just can’t test it scientifically.

Falsifiability specifies a criteria, or necessary condition, that a theory must meet in order to be scientific. While this gives us information as to how scientific theories are generated, it doesn’t help us define what it is that scientists, as a group, actually do or what unites their practices under the same title. While this definitional task may be insurmountably difficult (as Dr. Martens indicates), looking at the benefits and outcomes of the scientific process makes it relatively easy to at least comprehend why scientists do what they do.

Generally speaking, each scientific discipline helps us to appreciate the world in more detailed, nuanced and accurate ways. It helps overcome our limited perceptive abilities and cognitive biases to gain this improved understanding of life, the universe and everything. With these understandings come practically applicable, technological advances in medicine, environmental protection, psychological sciences and many other fields. From DNA re-sequencing to analyses of consumer spending habits, science is an incredibly varied and indisputably beneficial discipline. It just stubbornly refuses to be defined.