Science is —

This website will be in part about science, so it is appropriate to start off with a definition of same. Actually, it will be my definition, which is undoubtedly different from yours. At least it should be. There are no word-police to go around making sure that everyone means the same thing by each word, even though there are people who think there should be. It would be futile to even try to do that, and I am not inclined even to recommend that. Rather than do that, I think it is better to try to be as clear as one can be, using the simplest language one can muster, to explain what I mean by such extraordinary terms as “science”. You don’t have to agree, but you will have a better idea of what I am talking about.

In formulating this definition I am trying to follow a practice suggested the physicist Percy Bridgman to make definitions of concepts operational. That is, the meaning of a concept is defined by the operations of its measurement. So, for example, if you defined the depth of a stream as that number which you would get by wading across the stream with a meter stick, putting it down through the water until it reached bottom and so forth, than your definition of depth would be non-operational for every stream you cannot wade across.

I will have to substitute “observation” for “measurement” in this discussion in order to translate the concept of operationalism to situations that don’t involve using number-language.

I assert then that if you were to observe a person doing the following, that person would be doing “science”:

Science is an organized activity for going about the business of changing your mind about what you think you already know.

I read once an interview of Arnold Aarons, a renowned professor of physics in which he said: “Somewhere along the line in graduate school I realized that  did not understand why I believed what I thought I knew”. My definition of science is descended from that earlier statement.

Of course, the experience of changing one’s mind is very common. I can’t imagine that there is anyone that has not experienced this. But usually it is an unpleasant experience, even traumatically so. So much so that more commonly, people will expend a great deal of energy avoiding this very thing.  It happens even to renowned scientists! After all, you spend a great deal of time and energy learning what you know and find out that it doesn’t work is painful and  disorienting. Why would anyone do that on purpose?

It turns out that the process is addicting. The “what you already know” stuff gets broken and scattered around you and you sit there confused and disheartened. But you carry on, sorting through the broken pieces, throwing some away, reshaping others, finding or making some new ones, until you have a new “something you know” that’s bigger, brighter and better than the old one. So you get hooked on the process.

The “organized activity” and “business” terms are in the definition to stress that the activity is deliberate and conscious. It is work! Climbing a mountain may also be work, but unless you are deliberately making observations to challenge what you think you already know, it is a nature walk, not science.

But why do this work? What do I mean by saying the new stuff is “better” than the old stuff you had to change your mind about?  In fact, historically, if there were no problems with the old stuff, people would not change their minds about it. Old stuff hangs around for a long time that way, particularly if most people do not have any problems with it. But problems have way of popping up unexpectedly. Who would have guessed that the entrance of gunpowder into Europe would lead to the need to completely overhaul the “old stuff” that everybody already knew about projectiles flying through the air?

At its core, science is a human problem solving activity. We turn to this activity whenever the old solutions to old problems no longer work. Also when the old solutions produce new and unforeseen problems, which they always do. And in the post-Modern world, we understand that the new solution will almost surely produce even newer problems, and we turn to science to try to fathom what the next problem is going to look like.

Note that in this exposition I have studiously avoided using the word “truth”.


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