What’s science?

A PhD course I took way back was about defining what science was. We read about Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos and others. My lasting impression from the course was that “science” was pretty much defined as whatever the “scientific community” of a particular time defined as science.

I use a rather more practical definition:

Science is whatever helps us to predict the outcome of experiments or the natural unfolding of events.

Science is what makes it possible to launch a rocket into space and eventually hit Mars; science is what makes this computer perform the necessary operations to put the characters I’m typing on a file on the hard drive, later to be retrieved through a web browser; science is what helps the psychologist help a depressed patient.

Science is manifested in models, explicit or mental. A simple model is that if you throw something in the air then it will soon enough come down. This model can be written down in terms of Newton’s laws but for practical everyday purposes a mental model often suffices (some models are actually stored quite deep in our nervous system; people walk and jump without thinking much about it).

Until the predictive power of a model (to be) is established, we call it a hypothesis which is basically an educated guess or a hunch. The prediction we obtain from a model is often not 100% certain but we have at least a better chance of getting the right answer than if we would merely be guessing. Some models like Newton’s laws seldom fail in everyday life whereas others such as models of global warming or the global financial system are less reliable.

A couple of comments on scientific models:

  • Adding one or more gods or some other kind of supernatural beings into a model has as far as I know never enhanced such model’s predictive power. God therefore seems like a redundant component of scientific models.
  • Some models are so ingrained in our brains that we don’t even recognize them as models. This makes them very hard to correct in case they are erroneous. “Free will” and “consciousness” are two models that I have written about earlier and that I’m rather skeptical about. Instead of trying to explain what they are we should be open to the possibility that they are in fact simply erroneous.

But then again, “science” is just a word. Defining a word is doing things a bit backward. Like the futile attempts to define “justice” or “democracy”. One should of course start with something one needs a name for and then give it a name. like calling those models of the world that (hopefully, eventually) take us to Mars “science”.


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