What is Science?

Science is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. It is our most logical and impartial way of explaining the world around us. The unique scientific method is based on evidence and there are several requirements to meet in order for information to be deemed scientific. These requirements largely remain the same but not all scientific knowledge will perfectly match these imperfect guidelines. Science is difficult to define and it is the ambiguity of this elusive definition that has had many pondering the question; what is Science?

Science is divided into three major categories; biology, chemistry and physics. Biology attempts to answer questions relating to living entities. Chemistry tackles the behaviour, structure and properties of matter, while physics investigates the motion, forces and energy that confines matter to the natural world. There are large overlaps between these fields and their definitions are nearly as indeterminate as Science itself. Collaboration between these areas can allow a much broader understanding of the world around us. Questions pertaining the meaning of life, the human soul and the existence of God can never be answered through Science. A common misconception is that Science can contradict the existence of God and therefore discredit religion. All three factions of Science exclusively relate to the natural (physical) world. This strictly prohibits the involvement of Science in supernatural arguments[1].

The aim of Science is to better our understanding of the natural world. Well-accepted ideas within the scientific community are open to adjustments or even complete discard. The manner of this system is alarming to some and may construe Science as unreliable; a common misunderstanding. Well-supported scientific ideas are exactly that, because of the large body of evidence that supports it. Lesser accepted ideas are usually the ideas with minimal or conflicting evidence. Science is constantly striving for new evidence which can inevitably lead to old ideas being cast aside. For example in 1938 an ancient fish (coelacanth), ubiquitously accepted to be extinct, was discovered living off the coast of South Africa[2]. Even the greatest theories have flaws. If there is no better explanation than a marginally or majorly flawed theory, then this is the best we have. Regardless of confounding factors the majority of accepted scientific knowledge is extremely useful. Our understanding of thrust and lift, among other knowledge, enabled the engineering of aeroplanes and space shuttles. All around us Science is being applied to great success with some of the most astonishing achievements being seen in medicine. Nothing is set in stone and the forward striving motion of Science is behind its impressive success[2].

Portrayed imagery of a great, all powerful machine that relentlessly ploughs forward, churning out brilliant discovery after brilliant discovery, is not necessarily an accurate one. Science achieves what it does through the accumulation of tiny forward steps that combat many knockbacks to give a net forward motion. There are two ways in which Science can be researched; applied and pure. Applied is where an ultimate goal is set and the research is focussed on attaining that goal. The more successful of the two is the “blue skies” or pure Science which is driven by curiosity[2]. Both can lead to unpredictable discoveries and many of the greatest discoveries were “unintentional.” Applied science is more abundant in the modern era due to the extremely high costs of scientific research. Commercialism in science feels it needs to justify spending and aim to produce either an agreed goal or a marketable product. The best example of this is the pharmaceutical industry where huge investments in research are made and a final product is demanded. On many occasions this product remains elusive. Governments are another protagonistic funder of science. As governments are largely run by professionals without a scientific background there are often misunderstandings of what a “good” scientific result is. Politicians want to justify their spending by having a sense of security that what is discovered can be applied to the wider society and will be a beneficial contribution for the nation. It is difficult to disagree with this notion but these are promises that can rarely be guaranteed.

Only testable ideas contribute to science. An idea needs to provoke the conjuring of logical predictions that can be tested. Experiments are designed to test specific ideas. If expected observations are seen in an experiment then this can infer the idea is correct. Observations that infer an idea is incorrect are equally important. It can be difficult to devise an appropriate experiment to test a particular idea. Sometimes the development new technologies and techniques are required[3]. Many experiments are imperfect and have to integrate a number of assumptions, thus limitations need to be considered when interpreting data. Ideas that can equally explain mutually exclusive outcomes are not testable. This reiterates the point that science cannot test the supernatural. For example science cannot test the extent of God’s control over everything. Every possible scenario or outcome of a test can stem from the unworldly being’s higher agenda[3].

Scientific ideas must actually be tested. Highly regarded ideas are ones that are backed by multiple lines of evidence that have been repeatedly tested. The same or very similar results should occur time and time again even if tested by many different scientists. Ideas that do not have supporting evidence are not accepted as science[4]. The involvement of the scientific community is an imperative aspect of science. This community contains all the researching institutions, scientists, journals, funding bodies and conference participants. Without this community science could not exist in its well established format. Feedback and contributions within the community are vital for improving our knowledge whether it be cross-field involvement, refereeing of articles or awareness exercises[5].

Science is ongoing. Solving old questions only stimulates an array of new ones, some of which can be picked up by researchers half way round the globe[6]. Although we cannot specifically define Science there are some key elements that are mostly integral to this phenomenon. Without Science the world would be an unrecognisable and arguably inauspicious place.

Sources

  1. University of California Museum of Paleontology. A Science Checklist. Understanding Science how science really works. http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_03
    (Accessed 1/12/14)
  2. University of California Museum of Paleontology. Science aims to explain and understand. Understanding Science how science really works. http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_04
    (Accessed 1/12/14)
  3. University of California Museum of Paleontology. Science works with testable ideas. Understanding Science how science really works. http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_05
    (Accessed 2/12/14)
  4. University of California Museum of Paleontology. Science relies on evidence. Understanding Science how science really works. http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_06
    (Accessed 2/12/14)
  5. University of California Museum of Paleontology. Science is embedded in the scientific community. Understanding Science how science really works. http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_07
    (Accessed 5/12/14)
  6. University of California Museum of Paleontology. Scientific ideas lead to ongoing research. Understanding Science how science really works. http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/whatisscience_08
    (Accessed 6/12/14)
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