Archive for September 10th, 2007

So, what is Science, again?

Posted on September 10, 2007. Filed under: Musings, Science |

I attended a lecture last weekend about applying the scientific method to some unusual phenomena.  At one point, the speaker stated: “Science isn’t trying to prove anything–its purpose is to ask questions.”  My little ears perked up, as that is something I wanted to believe.  I usually try to believe things I want to believe, but generally not without a little investigation first.  It had been my perception that many scientists either wanted to prove something, or declared that something had been proven by it.  So my quest first took me to the definition of proof, which turns out to be a legal or mathematical term, and has little to do with science, per se.

So, what is science?  My personal definition had long been: “recorded observations and experimental data”.

I knew that the English word had sprung from ancient terms in several languages which could be translated to “knowledge”.  Uh oh.  My newly cherished young belief was in trouble!  If science=knowledge, I felt, people would not likely assume scientific “knowledge” without proof, would they?  I was back to square one.

“What is knowledge?”, I then asked.  Answer:  “Facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education”, my dictionary patiently replied.

I was comfortable with the “information” and “skills” part of this answer, but, now–“What are facts?”  Beginning to wonder how far down this path I wanted to go, I discovered I’m remarkably persistent:  The simplest definition of “fact” is “that which is so”.  But, when the word is applied to scientific inquiry several considerations arise: 

  • whether and to what extent “fact” and “theoretic explanation” can be considered truly independent and separable from one another;
  • to what extent are “facts” influenced by the mere act of observation; and
  • to what extent are factual conclusions influenced by history and consensus rather than a strictly systematic methodology.
  • So, “knowledge” is not a set-in-concrete concept, either.  Meanwhile, back at the science ranch, I inquired about the purpose of scientific inquiry:

    “The underlying goal or purpose of science to society and individuals is to produce useful models of reality.

    “Science does not and can not produce absolute and unquestionable truth.

    “…it is not the goal of science to answer all questions. The goal of the sciences is to answer only those that pertain to perceived reality.”

    I was almost home free.  There was one last word to consider:  “Perception is the process of acquiring, interpreting, selecting, and organizing sensory information.”

    Whew.  I think I’m OK.  The sensory information–and what THAT means–is a discussion for another time.  In the meantime, I have enough ‘facts’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘perception’ to realize I can go ahead and embrace the notion that science isn’t out to prove anything.  I’m just happy to keep asking the questions.  What a relief!

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