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Defining Science

by Andre on 12 February 2009

A nice post at DrugMonkey discussing scientific misconduct has created a little spin-off discussion on the definition of science. The connection here was the assertion that if people just had a better understanding of what science really is, potential ethical grey areas would be less common. In any event, an anonymous reader claims that there are four rules science must follow:

1) Frack with your data all you want, but do the same exact fracking for both control and test data sets. If you don’t know what I mean by ‘control’ and ‘test’, go back to junior high science class.

2) Always have a negative control.

3) Always have a positive control.

4) Remember that you can only disprove a hypothesis or fail to disprove a hypothesis; your data do not ever ‘support’ a hypothesis (despite what you read in C/N/S [Cell/Nature/Science]).

This is a pretty good list, but some later commenters discuss some cases where it may not apply to which anonymous reader replies:

You can’t just say something is science because you want it to be. That’s the problem here — too many people doing intentional or unintentional crap they call science but which isn’t really science.

I would say the opposite is equally likely to apply: you need to be careful what you exclude from capital-s Science because it doesn’t fit the particular standards of your field. That list excludes some things I think most scientists would want to include. What about astrophysics? We can’t (yet) manipulate the stars, but I still want to include studying them systematically as part of science. What was the appropriate negative control when Newton was working out universal gravitation? Drop a non-gravitating apple to confirm it doesn’t fall to Earth? Or in biology, were Watson and Crick doing science? I think it’s fair to say that Franklin’s X-ray data “supported” their hypothesis* that DNA forms a double helix.

*If you want to call it a hypothesis. Perhaps their research was “merely descriptive?”

  1. DSKS    2930 days ago    #

    AnAnonymousReader perhaps should have clarified (2) and (3) by adding ‘where appropriate’. In the life sciences controls are v. often appropriate/vital, so I think that might have biased his list. This is not necessarily always the case in all areas of science, as you point out, particularly the theoretical (and largely deductive) sciences, where they are simply not needed much of the time, or macroworld sciences such as cosmology, where they are often, but not always, impractical.

    That said, there is a current backlash against superstring theory proponents that is based on the not unreasonable case that certain areas of theoretical physics have left the confines of Good Science and entered the realm of speculation and outright fantasy. The very presence of the word “theory” in the same sentence as “string” is something of a slap in the face for numerous evolutionary biologists that have been trying to correct the current public misunderstanding regarding the term “theory” as it relates to natural selection vs creation science.

  2. Alex    2930 days ago    #

    Regarding string theory, the line between science and non-science is not a perfectly sharp line. There is a gray area, and the problem with string theory is that it is wandering in the gray area, and wandering in the wrong direction.

    Regarding the comment at DrugMonkey: I find that when somebody on teh intertubes is getting really righteous about what is and isn’t actual science, getting so righteous that he’s actually excluding a lot of the scientific community, that person probably has a hidden agenda. Just ask him what he thinks about climate science, evolution, the age of the earth, or the age of the universe.

    Now, yes, there are some people who are just really picky about science, and God bless them for it. We always need a few super-harsh critics. But I can’t count the number of times that a creationist has tried to lecture me about the scientific method. So I get very suspicious about those “The scientific method is this, and anybody who says otherwise isn’t really a scientist” internet comments.

  3. Andre    2930 days ago    #

    DSKS, I agree. If you insert “where appropriate” it’s a much better list of rules. You also raise an interesting point about string theory. I certainly enjoyed the “string wars” from a couple of years ago. In the end I think Sean Carroll gets it about right (as he often does).

    Alex, you could be right. My impression from AnonymousReader was more parochialism than denialism though.

  4. Alex    2930 days ago    #

    Yeah, I’m thinking I was too harsh on him. He fit the pattern, but the pattern doesn’t always hold true.

    A lot of the language of the scientific method that gets into intro science seems to come from biology. In physical sciences, the concept of a “control” is less relevant than calibration. Before changing to theory, when I was doing experiments I was studying colloidal crystals. I wouldn’t have a “control” sample because what would that be? If I’m looking at structure, I’d just, well, look at it. (SEM, diffraction, whatever.) I might do some calibration on the instrument, but I wouldn’t report the calibration in a paper. If I’m looking at optical properties, say a reflection or transmission spectrum or a fluorescence spectrum, I might have a control like a disordered sample. Even then, though, a disordered sample can have its own distinct properties (phenomena emerging from disorder) so a certain amount of caution would be in order when comparing with the control.

    Most of science, especially physical science is not as neat as the textbook version of, say, Mendel’s experiments. I’ve heard that even Mendel’s experiments weren’t as neat as the textbook version, FWIW. In less neat experiments, the concept of a control is a difficult one. When somebody says “You just have to have a control, it’s that simple, anybody who doesn’t isn’t doing science,” I smell BS.

  5. Jesse    2926 days ago    #

    I don’t think this list does a very good job of defining science. Rules 1—3 seem more like a set of guidelines for deciding whether the results of some particular experiment should be given any consideration. 4 is something you might hear in a Philosophy of Science course.

    I would argue that an experiment can support a hypothesis. Consider, for example, Einstein’s theories of relativity — special and general. Experiments that verified predictions like gravitational redshift, different rates for clocks moving at different speeds, and the deflection of starlight in a gravitational field support Einstein’s theories.

    A theory is proposed to explain a set of observations. If it only explains those observations, then it cannot be supported by repeating the experiments it was designed to explain. However, if the theory explains the existing data and makes new falsifiable predictions, then experiments that verify these new predictions would support the theory, in my opinion. An experiment can never VERIFY a theory, but it can support it.

    As for defining science, I endorse Richard Feynman’s statement from the first of the Feynman Lectures: “The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment.”

    Science is not set of rules for making observations. It is a means for building a picture of the world that is consistent with the facts. Careful observation is perhaps the most important part of the process, but it does not define the enterprise. Elsewhere, Feynman points out that Bacon’s proscription for careful observation omits the judgment one has to make about what to observe. This is also missing from guidelines 1—3.

    It is possible to ask scientific questions and carry out experiments in just about any field, from physics to economics to astrology. One can make meticulous observations and develop logical and mathematical theories. However, unless experimental results are used to reject false hypotheses and refine the theoretical framework, one is not practicing science.

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