Word of the Day: science

Word of the Day: science

“He’s a scientist and he’s OK,
He sleeps all night and he works all day!”

“I poison rats, I eat my lunch,
I go to the lava-tree.
Then back in my apartment
I drink and watch TV.”

“He’s a scientist and he’s OK,
He sleeps all night and he works all day!”

All right, all right, I know that scientists are human beings like the rest of us, and that what’s called science these days, knowledge of the natural world gained by hypothesis and experiment, has worked wonders for us.  And I know many scientists whose work is more strenuous than that of almost anybody else in the academy.  Without their work, I would not know be typing these words into my computer.  But without the whole universe of winnable knowledge outside of the bounds of hypothesis and experiment, I’d hardly have anything to write about.  That’s another way of saying that science makes an excellent tool but a bad master.  The last couple of centuries are littered with miseries caused by people who stretched natural science beyond the bounds within which it really is science, that is, knowledge, and outside of which it is speculation, ideology, puffery, demagoguery, quackery, and sometimes plain madness.  I’m speaking of you, Le Corbusier, and you, Alban Berg, and you, Margaret Sanger, and you, Alfred Kinsey, and you, Alan Guttmacher, and you, Lysenko, and you, Forty Watt Brights.

Until fairly recently, the word science simply meant knowledge, or a field of intellectual inquiry.  It comes to us from the Latin scientia, built from the verb scire, to know, the origin of which is not clear.  In classical days it was pronounced skee-reh, but by the early Christian centuries that k before the front vowels was raised and moved forward, “palatalized,” so that Augustine probably pronouned it shee-reh, Italian style.  That was how Sister Felician of happy memory had us pronounce it in Latin class, leading to blushes and snickers when we got to the third person singular scit: he knows.  I think she enjoyed our embarrassment.

In any case, it’s high time we recovered the word’s old and full range, which is why I’ve determined to use the phrase natural science to describe what Richard Dawkins does when he talks about mice, and nescience when he talks about everything else.


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