Saturday, February 25, 2006

What is Science?

This is one of the most important questions we must answer in our discussion, since the question of what is scientific and what isn't directly hinges on the definition of science.

Yet, despite the importance of the definition, and the reputation science has of being exact, an unambiguous definition of science that everyone would agree with is hard to come by. The general principle behind it can be stated as "the study and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena"1 or "knowledge based on observed facts and tested truths arranged in an orderly system"2. But a working definition that would enable us to distinguish between studies and knowledge that are science and those that aren't is much harder to come by, at least one that everyone would agree on.3 What, exactly, are the criteria for determining what is science and what is not? What is the scope and purpose of science? What rules are it governed by? These are harder to get a consensus on, or at least a consistent consensus, especially when it comes to the creation/evolution debate. We will discuss these questions in more detail later, but for this post, let's focus on the basic question of what science is.

Perhaps the best way to do that is to discuss what science is not. For quite a while now, science has been viewed in an almost "holy" light, almost as if it were the Ultimate Source of knowledge and the Absolute and Final Authority in almost all matters. Not in so many words, of course, but the idea is suggested by such common phrases as "science says" or "scientists believe", the implication being that if "scientists say" so, it must be so. Perhaps a more easily recognized concept of science is the reputation it has for being an objective, unbiased, emotionless, systematic machine that is only interested in the cold, hard facts, regardless of the implications or consequences. Neither of these concepts are accurate or even justified.

Note in the above definitions that science is described as a "study", "explanation", and "orderly system" of "knowledge". At its heart, science is merely a system that man has devised to study what he can see, hear, feel, and measure in an organized and efficient way. It is a tool that mankind can use to increase his knowledge about his surroundings, hopefully so he can put that new-found knowledge to good use to better his condition. As a tool--and a man-made one at that--it has many weaknesses, shortcomings, and limitations. It is far from universal in scope, nor is it by any means always accurate in its pronouncements nor appropriate in its application. Science is carried out by scientists, who are far from objective, unbiased, or emotionless. Indeed, scientists can fight and argue just as much and as vehemently as politicians or religious leaders, with each passionately defensive of his own idea or theory.4 New ideas or breakthroughs in science sometimes take longer to make it through the "bureaucracy" of science than some laws do to make it through the legislature.

Furthermore, science is not even synonymous with truth. Science can be, has been, and undoubtedly is wrong in many of its pronouncements. Scientific theories are revised, updated, or discarded quite regularly. Science textbooks quickly go out of date. Even established laws and "proven facts" are sometimes significantly revised or completely discarded. Old models are quickly moved out of the way to make place for new. In short, science is a constantly changing, constantly revising study.

This is not at all to minimize the importance or power of science. Indeed, most of that change is progress, as newer and better explanations, theories, and models replace the older, inadequate ones. What I am trying to do is emphasize the fact that science is not absolute, it is not final, it is not set in stone. It is merely an extremely powerful and ever improving tool that man has developed to better investigate his surroundings. Because it was developed by man, and is used by man, it has all the faults and limitations of man. It is not some all-powerful, all-knowing, always-right, final authority.

So what is science? It is a tool, a powerful tool, but still a man-made tool. In short, science is a powerful tool that mankind uses to gain knowledge about his surroundings. Such is the nature of science. Nothing more, nothing less.

In the next post, we'll discuss in more detail the limitations of science.


1. The American Heritage School Dictionary; Davies, Peter, Barry Richman, and Fernando de Mello Vianna, editors; (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977).

2. The World Book Dictionary, 2 vols.; Barnhart, Clarence L. and Robert K. Barnhart, editors; (Chicago, Illinois: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1987).

3. For a brief discussion on this from an evolutionary perspective, see "Is Evolution Science, and What Does 'Science' Mean?", by John S. Wilkins in Evolution and Philosophy on Talk.Origins.

4. See also, "A Look at Some Myths About Scientists" by Carl Wieland of Answers in Genesis in Creation [11(3):29 June 1989].


By the way, perhaps I should explain a little about the post subjects. Since the creation/evolution posts take a lot of time and research, and I don't have enough free time to do that research very often, I've decided to use posts that don't take as much time or research in between the c/e ones. This keeps the blog from sitting for months without being updated. Hopefully sometime in the future I can figure out how to keep all the c/e posts together so it has more unity. In the meantime, I'll just have to jump back and forth. I would really like to be able to update it at least twice a month, but I'd need to learn to write concisely then. :)