What is Science?

Let me start by saying what it’s not. It’s not a collection of facts. It’s not lasers, rocket ships, or any other technology. It’s not even all the stuff you find in science textbooks.

Facts are not science. That’s not to say facts aren’t, or can’t be, scientific. It’s just to say that facts are a product of science, they don’t constitute it. Facts are small summations or findings from a particular scientific discipline; snippets of the truth, useful for some larger theory or cut from one.

Technology is not science. Technology usually requires a scientific understanding of different things in order to put it all together in a non-naïve way. But the products of this process don’t constitute science. They’re not even entirely products of science. More so, they’re products of the engineering process which employs science.

The disciplines of science — physics, chemistry, biology, etc. — are not science. Regardless of what the textbooks say. Again, that’s not to say these things aren’t scientific, but it’s best to say that they are disciplines of science — delineated areas of nature that scientists have focused on. What you find in a science textbook is a lot of scientific terms, scientific facts, scientific theories, equations, experimental designs, and applications. But you won’t find much about science.

So what is it?

Ultimately, it’s a way of thinking. One that uses logic and reasoning to produce three things: data, knowledge, and explanations. Tests, experiments, and observations produce data; analysis (usually statistical) produces knowledge (otherwise known as findings); and modelling (usually mathematical) produces explanations (collections of which become known as theories). These things, and the quality of them, are important in understanding what science is, and how it is ultimately a way of thinking. So I’ll quickly discuss these products of science and the methods by which they’re produced, and some general rules about what makes them good scientifically.

As beings in reality, one of the more important and fundamental projects we embark upon is to gain knowledge about that reality in order to understand it. There’s a good analogy, if a little overused, about the map and the territory: we’re on the territory and we’re going to have to navigate it whether we like it or not, so it pays to have a good map. Science is the way of thinking that works to make that map better.

In order to make that map better we have to collect data. That is, pieces of information about some part of reality. We can only get good data by playing by reality’s rules. What is or isn’t playing by the rules — what is or isn’t scientific — will ultimately fit into what is or isn’t logical. This is important, because logic, and the fact that reality is logical, is the only reason why science works. Or better, it’s the only reason why certain ways of thinking lead to conclusions about reality that would otherwise be unattainable, and why only certain ways of thinking can reliably lead to those conclusions.

That aside, with data we can do analysis and produce knowledge. That is, if we do the right kind of analysis, playing by reality’s rules of logic, then we can say that we know something about reality — we have facts in the form of observations or statistics.

Once we have some knowledge about reality, we can start to develop an understanding of it.

To understand something is to have internal access to an explanation of it. This can be implicit, like how to ride a bike, or explicit, like how light interacts with matter. The important one for science is the explicit kind. In short, what makes a good explanation is the difficulty with which any part of it can be varied without losing something. That means that a really good explanation is one in which all its parts are essential and functional; they can’t be taken out, and when they’re in, they’re actually doing something.

A collection of explanations and models about a particular part of reality is known as a theory. A loose sense of the word “theory” has been adopted into our everyday language. But scientific theories are not the ones that usually follow the phrase “Yeah, I have a theory…”. Those kinds of “theories” tend to be only hypotheses, and usually not very good ones. Scientific theories tend to be bigger, with more parts, and robust explanations, like general principles that explain all known phenomena and lead to testable predictions within a particular area of reality.

So how is it a way of thinking?

Science is a way of thinking because it takes the following form: propose some explanation about reality; see whether the explanation contradicts itself; see whether that explanation can explain things that are already known; see whether there is an alternative explanation available that is deeper and more general; see whether you can change parts of the explanation without it significantly affecting the explanation; and, importantly, think of every possible way you can that your explanation might be wrong, and test it.

All of these are, except the testing part, processes that happen in your head. They’re thought processes, though they may be augmented by mathematics. And all of these processes occur before, during, after, and in relation to every test, experiment, observation, or analysis. You’re only really doing science if you’re engaged in those thought processes.

Why does all this matter?

It matters for the same reason that it works. It matters because we are creatures that live in this reality, and hence it is within our interest to navigate this reality successfully. The fact that we have made significant progress in our collective understanding of this reality shows that our innate understanding of it is not complete. This means we can learn more. And this means that the more we learn the better able we are to understand it in order to navigate it, or to do anything else that might require such understanding.

It’s also only by understanding something that we can produce the kind of refined technologies we’ve come to conflate with science. Which is probably why we conflate it: we do a lot of science, make some discoveries, come up with theories, use those to engineer something we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, and then point to that and say “Look, science!”. The sentence should be “Look what I can do by using science!”. But if we want to use science to understand reality we first have to understand what science is and is not.
Equating science with the facts, disciplines, or applications of science is what leads people to think they don’t like science, or that it’s not useful for them, or that it helps you make cool shit but it’s not going to help you in your everyday life.

In reality, most problems in your life, or things you want to improve, learn, or develop, will be best solved by using some form of scientific thinking. Again, this doesn’t mean going to a textbook and looking at a bunch of facts and trying to figure out how quantum chromodynamics can help you be a better lover. Anyone who tries to tell you anything like that is most likely just a charlatan armed with buzzwords.

That’s not how science helps us in everyday life. And the physical sciences probably never will, because they aren’t interested in the kinds of problems, nor the kind of precision, that we usually are in everyday life. Psychology, economics and other social sciences, are the closest disciplines of relevance to our everyday problems, but even those can’t be imported wholesale, and what might be doesn’t do so smoothly.

Equating science with disciplines of science gives you the sense that science can only be done by people in lab coats. But, as I’ve said, science is a way of thinking, anyone can do it, at any point they choose, on any area of their lives.

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Kiall Hildred

Kiall Hildred

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I write about ideas in science, psychology, and other things. If you want me to write for you: https://www.upwork.com/freelancers/~016131672e7cc85d9d