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Well or ill defined?


By Michael Banks

“Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.”

That is the definition of ‘science’ according to Britain’s Science Council, an organisation representing over 30 learned and professional bodies in the UK ranging from the Royal Astronomical Society to the Association of Clinical Biochemistry.

Apparently the council has spent a whole year deciding on this new meaning to provide a distinction between genuine science and psuedoscience.

So let us look at the alternatives. According to my Chambers dictionary, ‘science’ means the “knowledge ascertained by observation and experiment, critically tested, systematised and brought under general principles, esp in relation to the physical world.”

One notices in the council’s definition that science is the ‘pursuit’ of knowledge rather than that ‘ascertained’, as well as the inclusion of the ‘social’ world.

So Physics World readers, what do you think of the definition? Can you do any better? But please don’t take one year to decide!

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  1. Bee

    Sounds good to me. What about computer science and maths?

  2. “the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural world following a systematic methodology based on evidence” would have been better. Why include social science? That’s a rather different area, with different methodologies…

  3. Arjun

    Still too loaded.
    We must recognize that science, like philosophy or religion, represents a perspective on the world. Science claims epistemic merit on the basis of its methodology, as the definition proclaims.
    Strict adherence to method will stifle progress as the well of insight offered by a certain perspective dries up. Thus the ‘process’ of science lies in the continual shifting and refocusing of perspective(s) across all spatial and temporal scales.
    In this sense neither science nor religion nor philosophy (subsume any of the above into each other at your behest) can claim epistemic supremacy or long-term validity, so long as we keep the dogs of dogmatism at bay.

  4. Thomas Murphy

    Some nice comments here. Thanks Arjun.
    Building on these I offer:
    “Science is the pursuit of understanding based on verifiable evidence.”

  5. Thomas Goodey

    I would omit the phrase “natural and social”. There is only one world. The idea that there is a natural world, a social world, an artistic world, a political world, …. is nonsense. And if it weren’t, couldn’t science be applied to more of those other worlds, than only the natural and social ones? No, science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world, yadda yadda… Note that this definition omits any statement as to what such knowledge and understanding consist of. Of course the only content of such knowledge is knowledge of structure; this is the epistemological foundation of science.

  6. ‘dogs of dogmatism’, yes — this is what has prevented e.g. cold fusion being registered as a real scientific phenomenon, despite the abundant scientific evidence in its favour.
    Just a point though, getting ‘verifiable evidence’ may require much dedication and skill, something that those who dogmatically deny something tend not to take into account when they deny the reality of some phenomenon.

  7. Brian

    It’s good to see that the definition clearly states that science is a particular way of pursuing knowledge rather than a passive body of facts or beliefs. That’s a distinction that people at my lab often try to make when talking with their friends and families, who tend to view science as a collection of newspaper factoids.
    For the rest, why be overly specific? The need when defining anything is just to distinguish it in a practical and informative way from other things in relevant conceptual spaces, and “following a systematic methodology based on evidence” does the trick quite nicely, I think. Looking at the definition as a whole, science isn’t religion, it’s not philosophy, it’s not pseudoscience, it’s not jurisprudence, it’s not the school of hard knocks. Reading between the lines, it’s a style of investigation that’s meant to keep you honest when you attempt to understand the natural world in a general way. The rest is contingent.

  8. Lawrence Normie

    Following Popper, no scientific theory ever can be verified, no matter how much observational or experimental evidence is accumulated in its favour. However, all scientific theories may be refuted by a single contrary observational event. Therefore my preferred definition of science is “the systematic process of improving, refining, and (if necessary) rejecting theories and hypotheses about the world through objective criticism and attempted falsification.”

  9. Lawrence:I thought the original definition was clever by not getting into specifics:”a systematic methodology based on evidence” sounds good to me!

  10. Lawrence Normie

    Cormac: I agree that the slightly modified version of the Science Council’s definition you propose is more pragmatic for the intended (public information) purpose. Yet, if we wish to pin down more precisely what are the essential attributes of scientific knowledge, then we should say something about the quality of predictive power implicit in the theoretical foundations of the science in question. It’s also important, I believe, to realise that it is always the theory that arises first, and only afterwards is the evidence marshaled to provide (provisional) support for it. Popper said that one cannot induce a theory (from scratch) through observed facts alone; there is inevitably a strongly intuitive/inspirational process involved in the initial proposition of theories. What distinguishes science from non-science is the facility of the former to be tested rigorously against experience. The above rambling, of course, is merely my attempt at paraphrasing Popper’s (I believe oft misunderstood) position on the progression of scientific knowledge.

  11. Stephen Maxfield

    “It’s also important, I believe, to realise that it is always the theory that arises first, and only afterwards is the evidence marshaled to provide (provisional) support for it…” – Well sometimes I guess but in my experience in particle physics at least it has been much more evenly balanced between the development of theory and experimental observation and measurement. The one informs the other. After all, we do still occasionally find truly unexpected experimental results that drive the development of theory and force revolutions in thinking. Lately, most experimental particle physiscists that I know utter a silent curse every time their measurements fail to falsify the ‘standard model’. On the other, the absence of strong experimental selection has led to a productive explosion of new species of theory and speculation over the last few decades. Some will not survive the claws of the LHC. It will be fascinating to see. All of this, including the periods of unrestrained speculation is real science.

  12. David

    Definitions, as has already been pointed out, are a mechanism for abstracting from reality, generally in a shortened form. Many of us on this forum practice science; or, at least recognize it when it is practiced. But any attempt to reduce the complexity of science to a few short words that will fit in the dictionary would seem doomed to fail due to the process of abstraction. And, commendable as the Science Council’s attempt to have a properly nuanced statement about science, I am not confident in the non-scientist to appreciate those nuances. In the end, “the map is not the territory.”


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