What Science Is (And Isn't)

One of my (several) frustrations in life is the eclectic way the word “science” is used in human discourse.

As someone who earns a living being a scientist, I’m continuously the recipient of comments like “I was never any good at science,” or “I always hated my science classes,” or ”science is really cool” or “science has really messed up the planet,” or “scientists are arrogant know-it-alls,” or “what you’re saying sounds like ‘scientism’” or “science and religion are irreconcilable”.

So what is this thing of which we speak?

Wikipedia has an unusually excellent offering on this history of this topic. With that as background, I’d like to make two points.

First, everybody is a scientist. When you’re trying to figure out why your car won’t start, you develop a series of hypotheses and then test them: Maybe I’ve run out of gas (check the gas gauge); maybe the battery is dead (check the headlights). When you’re trying to figure out the effect of adding more salt to that pot of soup you're fixing for company, you pour aliquots into two bowls, add salt to one (experimental) and no salt to the other (control), and test the outcome.

That’s exactly what those of us do who get paid to try to figure out how Nature does things (aka natural scientists) and how humans and their institutions do things (aka social scientists). We ask questions that are based on our knowledge of the system (car, tastiness) and set up experiments that we hope will provide answers (it’s the battery; more salt is better).

Second, the answers that we scientists obtain, after passing the muster of our own skepticism and the rigorous scrutiny of our peers, isn’t science.  The answers, gleaned via scientific inquiry, represent understandings of nature/society as gleaned via scientific inquiry. Obviously that’s cumbersome, and calling it “science” is quicker, but calling it science is also confusing.

Nature and society are out there. A great way to deepen our knowledge of both is via the “scientific method,” an approach that we all in fact understand very well. That said, it’s a method; it’s not the outcome. 

The outcome is the insight.

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