“Science”: What it is and is not, and how it is misused

How many times have you seen a headline, or have heard a politician speak, expressing something like: “Science shows that…”, or “Scientists say that…”?

The following four statements are mine alone:

  • Do not accept anything written or said in a context such as the above.
  • “Science” is not a thing, or a person, or group of persons which declares anything, or takes any action, or has an opinion.
  • What any purported group of scientists “says” is inappropriate to quote, other than from a publication recognized as “scientific”, and in the exact language in such a publication.

– Especially discard as false anything a scientist says or is quoted as saying if it contains any variant of the verb ‘to believe’.

How do I justify these dicta? So glad you asked.

What is “science”?

Here is what certain people whom we can comfortably accept as “scientists” have said:

Fiction is about the suspension of disbelief; science is about the suspension of belief.
— James Porter, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Professor, Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, USA

Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.
Richard Feynman, Nobel-prize-winning physicist

So, suspend your beliefs and develop your skepticism if you wish to be a scientist. Note: Classical philosophical skepticism derives from the Skeptikoi (Greek), a school which “asserted nothing”. (Source).

Fundamental to all “scientific” inquiries is the concept of empiricism:

Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoningintuition, or revelation. (Source).

Which now brings us to the heart of the matter: The Scientific Method.

Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses

Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results…

(T)he process must be objective to reduce biased interpretations of the results. Another basic expectation is to document, archive and share all data and methodology so they are available for careful scrutiny by other scientists, thereby allowing other researchers the opportunity to verify results by attempting to reproduce them. This practice, called full disclosure, also allows statistical measures of the reliability of these data to be established….(Source)

There you have it.

But wait! There’s more!!

I came across this newspaper article, Fraud in a Lab Coat. At the end, the writer, Gareth Cook, states: “We need to do better. Science is a quest for the truth. And to know what is true, one must know what is false.”

Is science, indeed, a quest for “truth”?

Karl Popper (Source: http://ub.uni-klu.ac.at/)

Here is what British philosopher of science Karl Popper says on this:

I think that we shall have to get accustomed to the idea that we must not look upon science as a “body of knowledge”, but rather as a system of hypotheses, or as a system of guesses or anticipations that in principle cannot be justified, but with which we work as long as they stand up to tests, and of which we are never justified in saying that we know they are “true” . . . (Emphasis added). —Karl R. Popper (1902-1994), The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

So, don’t “believe” in science.

A belief system is (comprised of) ideas that are taken on faith and cannot be scientifically tested. (Source).

I assert that, as compared with the realm of science, a belief system is a relatively closed system. The realm of science cannot be closed or complete. There is always more to doubt, more to hypothesize, more to discover, more to test.

To be fair to the conscientious scientist who is, after all, a human being with desires and goals, I here quote my friend Vasil, a retired MD, PhD, D.Sc. psychopharmacologist who spent many productive years in clinical research. He responded to my arguments that a scientist can’t properly believe in anything when pursuing the proof of a hypothesis: “I’m sure that it is true, but not sure that it is absolutely true.”

Finally, I assert that to believe in anything is not a bad thing. Each of us has our set and systems of beliefs. Most of us in any given locale share these beliefs (whether or not we recognize them consciously as such) or the local society tends to disintegrate and disperse.

What a scientist must do, and very difficult it is, is to consciously identify her or his set or system of beliefs and to suspend it in the pursuit of new information about the universe.

“…the ideal of scientific neutrality is itself, like all other ideals, a human invention. And like other human ideals, it is subject to abuse if its character and function are misconceived.” – Philip H. Rhinelander (1908—1987), philosopher, Stanford professor emeritus, and former dean of the Stanford University School of Humanities and Sciences.

“Science means, first of all, a certain dispassionate method. To suppose that it means a certain set of results that one should pin one’s faith upon and hug forever is sadly to mistake its genius, and degrades the scientific body to the status of a sect.” From The Will to Believe“, by William James, 1896.

Other scientists and philosophers don’t agree that “science” is  method. Rather, it is an approach to knowledge:

Contrary to what most scientists themselves appear to believe, science is not a method; it is an approach to knowledge (Stanovich, 2012). Specifically, it is an approach that strives to better approximate the state of nature by reducing errors in inferences. Alternatively, one can conceptualize science as a toolbox of finely honed tools designed to minimize mistakes, especially confirmation bias – the ubiquitous propensity to seek out and selectively interpret evidence consistent with our hypotheses and to deny, dismiss, and distort evidence that does not (Tavris and Aronson, 2007; Lilienfeld, 2010). Not surprisingly, the specific research methods used by psychologists bear scant surface resemblance to those used by chemists, astrophysicists, or molecular biologists. Nevertheless, all of these methods share an overarching commitment to reducing errors in inference and thereby arriving at a more accurate understanding of reality. (Source)

Either way, don’t believe in science as a method or an an approach to knowledge. It is not, and should not be perceived or used as a faith.