What is science, anyway?

What is science, anyway? April 19, 2019


The Longest Migrator
An arctic tern (Wikimedia Commons public domain)


As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, to howls of protest and irritation from certain quarters, science is a thoroughly human enterprise.  As this article well illustrates, the scientific topics that are pursued are chosen by humans, and the scientific questions that are asked are formulated by human minds:


“‘Invisible Women’ spotlights a gaping and dangerous gender data gap: A new book explains how the failure to study women harms their health”


It’s always nice to have news from home, the place where I grew up:


“More than a million tiny earthquakes revealed in Southern California: Abundant data on little quakes can help scientists learn more about what triggers the big ones”


In case you’ve wondered:


“Scientists Find Evidence Mercury Has a Solid Inner Core”


Animal migration is an intriguing topic.  How do humpback whales know the route from Maui to Alaska and back again?  How do arctic terns navigate their incredible 44,000 miles each year?  And what role does “teaching” play in the transmission of navigational ability from one generation to the next?  I enjoyed this brief article on the topic as it relates to one animal species:


“A scientist used chalk in a box to show that bats use sunsets to migrate: Oliver Lindecke devised a new device that was partly inspired by a snow-covered Berlin street”


And now for the practical part of today’s readings on scientific issues.  What (if anything) do the Tsimane people, of the lowlands of northern Bolivia, do that makes for such cardiac health?


“Life lessons from the native tribe with the healthiest hearts in the world”




But what is “science,” anyway?


Our English word science derives, ultimately, from the Latin verb scire, which meant “to know.”  In modern English, though, science doesn’t refer simply to knowledge in general.  Rather, it denotes a certain kind of knowledge — or, even, to be really precise, a certain methodology (or bundle of methodologies; after all, cosmology, botany, geology, particle physics, genetics,  astrophysics, and ecology employ quite distinct methods and styles of reasoning) for attaining that certain kind of knowledge.


Very few if any people in the English-speaking world, for instance, would describe art history as a “science.”


Is history, more generally, a “science”?  Some historians have aspired to that status — Leopold von Ranke’s famous goal of recording or writing history wie es eigentlich gewesen (“as it actually was”) surely expresses some such ambition — but most today probably don’t.  And, while history can be ranked among the “social sciences” (as it is at BYU, for instance), it’s often placed within colleges of “Arts and Letters”).  And it’s arguably at least as close to literature as it is to nuclear physics.


Is “political science” really a “science”?  As practiced by some (e.g., by those who work with survey data), it may tend in a genuinely “scientific” direction.  But more than a few “political scientists” are either uncomfortable with or irritated by the notion that they’re doing “science.”  Courses on political philosophy, for instance, don’t seem “scientific” at all — though that doesn’t even begin to render without value the study of Plato’s Republic and Laws, Aristotle’s Politics, or the work of John Rawls.


There are valuable areas of scholarship, study, and thought that have nothing to do with “science” as it is generally conceived in English.


In German, though, the word Wissenschaft is quite a different matter.



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