Science is a Way of Knowing

A common accusation leveled against science by its enemies is that it is too closed-minded, too dogmatic, too authoritarian. From creationists to “alternative medicine” advocates to New Agers, the defenders of pseudoscience argue that science is closed to new ideas, set in its ways, unwilling to challenge conventional wisdom. If only science would examine our claims with an open mind, goes the refrain from each fringe community, they would see that they are fully deserving of inclusion.

There is a fundamental error in this type of claim, one which turns on a misunderstanding of what science truly is. All these claims assume that what science is, first and foremost, is a body of knowledge, a catalogue of facts about the world, and that admittance to this list is what makes an idea scientific. All it takes, they think, is to overcome the dogmatism of the gatekeepers.

The error in thinking this way is that science is not a body of knowledge, at least not primarily. Instead, I would argue that science is primarily a way of knowing, a particular way of looking at and investigating the world. The knowledge gained by this method can also be considered science, but only in a secondary sense. Being aware of this body of knowledge is not a necessary prerequisite to do science. Being in the habit of looking at the world in a scientific way is.

This is where defenders of creationism and other pseudosciences go wrong. They assume that there are no particular criteria for an idea being scientific, other than acceptance by scientists or by society at large. In fact, an idea can only properly be considered scientific if it is a product of this particular way of thinking – the scientific method – from beginning to end. “Science” is not a label that can be slapped on just any finished idea, but is an intrinsic aspect of the way that idea was brought into being and developed.

What is the scientific method? A full description is well beyond the scope of this post, but the simplest summation is to say that an idea developed using the scientific method has two vital qualities: it should be testable and tested. An idea is scientific if and only if it makes definite and checkable statements about the way the world should be, and those statements actually have been compared to reality and verified to be true by independent investigation.

An idea fails the first criterion if it makes no predictions at all, or if those predictions are so vague or subjective that there is always an escape hatch for any test claimed to disprove them. An idea fails the second criterion if it has never been put to the test, or if it has only been put to the test by self-interested investigators who have an incentive to cover up or rationalize away any failure, or if it has been put to the test and has failed.

But there is slightly more to it than that: there is a particular sort of attitude, a way of conceptualizing and reacting to the world, that goes hand-in-hand with formulating testable ideas and then testing them. Doing science means being skeptical: neither dogmatically rejecting nor credulously accepting every new idea, but maintaining a “wait and see” attitude until that idea has proved itself against the evidence. A wise scientist proportions their skepticism to the extraordinariness of the idea, requiring a stronger threshold of proof for an idea that contradicts a greater number of other ideas that have been tested.

Doing science also means a scrupulous intellectual honesty, a free and open attempt to rule out all possible sources of error that can be ruled out, and a full and forthright disclosure of the ones that could not. A good scientist will not be a diehard advocate of their own idea, but will, as best as they can, consider it in the same spirit of neutrality that anyone else would, and if at all possible will suggest tests by which it can either stand or fall and accept the results whatever they may be. A good scientist will listen to and carefully consider the counsel of others, and will consider the people who attack their own ideas most fiercely to be their most valued allies. And a good scientist will never consider any conclusion to be immune from further challenge, no matter how old or venerable it is.

People who view science as an arrogant, overbearing authority are wrong. In fact, anyone can be a scientist. It doesn’t require an advanced degree or expensive equipment, only a thinking mind and a willingness to investigate the world. Indeed, that is why science is so useful. The homemaker who plants flowers of the same species in various places in a backyard garden to determine what combination of sunlight, shade, soil and water is best for them is no less a scientist than the physicist studying the building blocks of matter in a massive, multimillion-dollar particle accelerator. Though the ideas being studied differ in degrees of complexity, the approach is the same.

In general, practicing scientists scorn advocates of pseudoscience not because they are stuck in their ways, but because these people refuse to play by the rules. In most cases, they either have no knowledge of or actively reject the scientific method, and then expect their untested, untestable ideas to be accepted into the scientific canon and accorded equal respect along with the ideas that have been laboriously, painstakingly tested by hundreds of scientists over many years.

If anyone is excluded from the scientific community, it is by their own choice. If you disagree with the conclusions scientists have reached, do not stand on the sidelines griping and complain of dogmatism when your idea fails to be accepted purely on your say-so. Instead, roll up your sleeves and get to work. The history of science is full of ideas that were not accepted at first and became conventional wisdom only after their advocates could produce the hard evidence supporting them. If you can do the same, scientific fame and glory await.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • greensmile

    Science is ill served by the distortions of the time constrains of popular media outlets. This phenomonon enforces a perception gulf with which we who speak from a scientific outlook will have to battle or find a way around. There are exceptions but it seems this dismal state is the rule.

  • Jeff G

    Of course there are some people who have no clue what science is and is not, but let’s ignore that people who are flat out stupid on this matter. What I consider to be the flat-out-stupid position is that if somebody believes a belief to be true, they believe it to be science. This is wrong.

    Nevertheless, it is not so wrong for a person to expect true science to at least be in harmony with what they believe to be true. Of course at this point we aren’t really talking about science anymore.

    What people need to recognize is the science isn’t meant to be a claim to all truth. The scientific method simply isn’t qualified to deal with private evidence, and when it comes to religious beliefs, the evidence is almost all private.

    There is one thing which I think you should reconsider in your post. You say that science is a way of knowing rather than a body of knowledge. Kuhn argues pretty persuasively against this when he shows that the way in which we approach knowing scientifically is largly contingent upon what the body of knowledge which we already have is. Thus he suggests that there is an inherent conservatism, which can easily be interpreted as “dogmatism”, in the scietific process. It is this version of science, a Kuhnian version, which most religious intellectuals shore up most of their hopes, saying that their paradigm is simply different from that of the naturalist’s.

    BTW, The past couple times I have tried to post here, the security code has not been showing.

  • The Gay Species

    The method should not be shorted, because the method is the only means
    by which a test or testable observation can be verified or falsified.
    It’s not just a way of knowing, but also a way of doing. The former
    relies on the latter.

    What of those claims that are not testable? First, they are outside
    the realm of science, as you mention. If something is not testable, it
    simply means science cannot adjudicate anything about it. All
    metaphysical claims and religious claims are not testable, and
    therefore outside the realm of science. But does that mean they bear
    no witness to “truth?” If one’s criteria is empiricism and
    rationalism, then the answer is, Yes. But if one’s sole criteria is
    rationalism, then the answer is, No.

    But look where rationalism has led us! Up more blind alleys than not.
    Probably the paradigmatic example of rationalism is Thomas Aquinas’s
    Summa Theologica. Every proposition of that magisterial work is
    rationalistic. The syllogism has never been put to better use. But if
    the criterion is simply rationalism, then all sorts of theories can be
    advanced, many that even conflict, because they lack grounding in the
    one “other” feature of human experience, namely experience (e.g.,

    Experience is the best teacher, states the adage, and indeed it is. We
    can reason our way in and out of things willy-nilly, but we cannot
    deny that our experience is true. The scientific method (as well as
    some forms of pragmatism) extol experience for this very reason. If a
    theory cannot be explained experientially and then tested, then
    whatever else one holds as “true” must be sceptically received. But
    once tested, then it is verified or negated, which determines what we
    do with the information. Verified experience then becomes our norm or
    default until or unless it is falsified.

    So living itself is a form of the scientific method. By doing what we
    do, we learn the most about life. The more it is tested and verified,
    the stronger our conviction. So it is in the “doing,” not in our
    “knowing,” that we ascertain life’s features. I suggest the same is
    true with the scientific method, which assumes this position, and
    strengthens it.

  • SpeirM

    It’s the testability (repeatability) that sets the predictions of science above those of religion. Reliable repeatability makes a convincing case for one’s view of reality. So I don’t see how hardline theists can get much traction from what I’ll call “reality relativism.” It’s difficult to believably say “agree with me or go to hell” when your argument, at best, is “my reality’s as good as yours.”

  • Ebonmuse

    There is one thing which I think you should reconsider in your post. You say that science is a way of knowing rather than a body of knowledge. Kuhn argues pretty persuasively against this when he shows that the way in which we approach knowing scientifically is largly contingent upon what the body of knowledge which we already have is. Thus he suggests that there is an inherent conservatism, which can easily be interpreted as “dogmatism”, in the scietific process.

    I’ve never thought Kuhn’s thesis said anything especially interesting. Of course your sense of what’s relevant and what to look for will be shaped by your existing background knowledge; there’s nothing controversial about that, and it’s as true for science as it is for any other field of human endeavor. But as I said, it’s not necessary to know anything about the commonly accepted body of knowledge – the existing paradigm, if we want to use Kuhn’s language – in order to think scientifically. It’s just that knowing that information will probably save you some time, because rather than repeat efforts already carried out by others, you can focus your investigation on the boundaries of knowledge, the loose ends where our understanding is still incomplete. Sometimes those loose ends can be neatly tied up using that existing knowledge; sometimes pulling on them causes the whole tapestry to unravel.

    BTW, The past couple times I have tried to post here, the security code has not been showing.

    I’ll look into it. What browser are you using? (Don’t forget you can also register and bypass the captcha entirely.)

  • lpetrich

    This sort of thing reminds me of all the crackpots who have compared themselves to Galileo and others whose views were initialy rejected. But Galileo didn’t win by whining about how persecuted he was; he won by making a better case than his opponents did.

    It seems to me that calling one’s views a Kuhnian paradigm shift is a fancier version of comparing oneself to Galileo.

    And a serious problem with Kuhn’s concept is: how many really big paradigm shifts have there been in mainstream science?

    I’ve attempted to evaluate that, and they are very hard to find. Science progresses in a cumulative fashion, and new theories usually incorporate old theories rather than overthrowing them.

  • Quath

    The more I have read, the less it seems that Kuhn was right. It seems that science steadily and softly changes over time. Even what we see as a paradign shift is a slow process that only looks like a big change if you look at a limited set of information.

    One big example is relativity. However, many components of relativity had been around for awhile such as the math and ideas. Einstein put it together. If he didn’t, then another would have. However, what did it do to Newtonial physics? Not too much of a change there. We reclassify it as slow physics, but it is what is taught in high school and used most of the time. If there had been a true paradign shift, then we wouldn’t be using Newtonian physics at all.

  • Jeff G

    I think what Kuhn argued most strongly, and probably most persuasively against was the idea that science is necessarily or even primarily accumulative. Normal science is indeed accumulative in that it is an effort to solidfy and expand the scope of the current paradigm. Nevertheless, science does have lots of paradigms shifts (though admittedly very few large ones) and each shift is NOT an accumulation. Rather, it is a backtrack, of sorts. I like to think of it as the smith hammering and burning out of imperfections in the process of making steel.

    Where I think Kuhn went wrong, and really wrong at that, was in his suggestion that paradigms are totally incommensurable. Contrary to Kuhn, some paradigms are better than others and they can be judged so by some criteria which though they may be native to a more basic paradigm, are not necessarily a part of those paradigms which are under consideration.

    Back to my point, the nonaccumulative nature of science is exactly what Kuhn sees as being the insuperable obstacle to calling science a mere body of knowledge or even a process of knowing. If science were simply a body or a process, then this would indeed strongly suggest an accumulative nature, but science is not accumuative so there must be, according to Kuhn, something else involved. This “something else” is what may of the more sophisticated religionists rely upon.

    The main thing to remember in considering Kuhn, is that even though evolution/creationism or Newtonian mechanics/Einsteinian relativity make for great illustrations of paradigm shifts, they are the exceptions to the rule of what Kuhn sees as the typical, far less radical, paradigm shift. A paradigm shift simply is when the scientific community comes to recognize an earlier scientist as being wrong in some way. Thus all the data that the earlier scientist used to support his theory is, in effect, thrown out the window in terms of accumulation, and is instead given a reinterpretation. It is the fact that the scientific endeavor is necessarily interpretive that it cannot simply be a body or a process.

  • The Gay Species

    Quath: “It seems that science steadily and softly changes over time.” This is a “conservative” attitude, one I share in regards to almost everything. Very few aspects of life do not not grow organically from that which preceded it. So I too don’t have much regard for Kuhn’s thesis of “scientific revolutions.” Indeed, revolutions in general annoy me. But a “thinner” interpretation of Kuhn might be that new insights can dramatically change perspective. That kind of claim is defensible. For example, the concept of biological evolution was percolating well before Darwin and Wallace. The “revolution,” if one wants to perceive it this way, is the dramatic shift in perspective that the evidence gives to the concept. One of the shifts was the absence of a need for “God” to explain anything. Another shift was Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest.” Evolutionary theory addresses neither issue, but these notions spring directly from it. In a parochial sense, the paradigm has shifted perspectives, and by force of reason and observation new views of the world appear. Radical, in its etymological sense, definitely, but “revolutionary” in its neo-Marxist sense, no.

  • Ebonmuse

    To be fair, there have been a few scientific advances that would probably fit Kuhn’s concept of a revolution. I can think of at least two – the acceptance of continental drift among geologists after the discovery of evidence for magnetic field reversals, and the demonstration of gravitational bending of starlight during a solar eclipse that made Einstein famous. However, the majority of scientific advances are not nearly so dramatic.