What is Science?

Featured, Science 2018-03-08

No, this is not a rhetorical question nor is it an extension of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon incessantly asks Penny the age-old question “What is physics?” With the rise of fake news, and scientific inaccuracies, it is prudent to return to our basic understanding of science. Therefore, I ask you, the reader, again: what is science?

For such a seemingly simple question, the answer is not so obvious. The challenge in defining science is the need to summarise its major concepts while also addressing the inherent limitations. Science is a process, the means to achieve a greater understanding on the world’s surroundings. How is it that this can be defined in a sentence?

In 2009, the Science Council saw fit to spend a year coining a definition of science. In a world where pseudoscience, popularised by practices such as homeopathy, mingles with genuine science, a new definitive definition was needed. In response the Science Council proposed the following definition:

Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.

Beautiful. This definition truly is a marvellous choice of phrasing. It envelops three of the most important fundamental aspects of science all into one sentence.

“… systematic methodology based on evidence.”

Starting first with the definition’s finale. Once again, the phrasing is vital as systematic methodology addresses several ideological positions of science.

Science is built off hypotheses, which is an idea that offers an explanation to an observed effect. Hypotheses seek to answer an underlying effect, and as such, they lead us to define different theories. Any idea or suggestion can be considered a hypothesis. So long as the result is fundamentally driven by observation and data, leading to acceptance or refutation, it can be considered valid.

What separates scientific hypotheses from others is the ability to apply experimentation that will either support or refute the proposed hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis can never be proven, instead it is considered yet to be refuted. The ability to test a given hypothesis is fundamental to the scientific method. Any hypothesis must be subject to quantitative methodology that assembles data to help deliver an informed result.

An example of a scientific hypothesis would be:

The mass of a popcorn kernel is proportional to the mass of a popcorn flake.

Now this hypothesis is valid since mass is a measurable quantity. This bring us to the based on evidence component of the definition. Science is a journey driven by evidence. Any hypothesis is accepted or refuted based on data obtained from testing. If after taking a series of measurements of mass I found there was no correlation between the masses of kernels and flakes, I would refute my hypothesis. The process then begins anew, constructing an alternative hypothesis for experimentation.

Testing and experimentation are platforms science is built on. But we must also delve deeper into the word methodology. Methodology means that the process of hypothesis, testing, data collection, analysis and communication, is all performed methodically. This manner is essential as it enables the possibility of repetition and criticism. Incidentally, there are numerous examples of scientific research that has been retracted due to flawed or falsified data, uncovered through other researchers attempting to reproduce results.

“… natural and social world …”

We must always consider the environment under investigation. While it is perhaps obvious that we should only consider the real world, the limits need to be expressed in any definition to exclude unjustly extending to the realm of the supernatural and science-fiction. By phrasing the parameters as the natural and social world, genuine scientific research is then confined to this realm of reality.

“Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding …”

I summarise by returning to the beginning. Science is a journey. It is built on the principles of experimentation, testing and reproducibility. Its path is forged through testable evidence with the overarching goal to address the world’s greatest challenges. From understanding our complex internal biological processes to the composition and lifespan of stars and planets, science presents the ability to answer life’s biggest mysteries. It can be applied to any scale, from the infinitesimally small to the magnitude of the cosmos. The scientific process is a wonderful, circular, repeatable process that is ever changing with the advent of new technology and our improved understanding. The iterative nature of scientific research, which in some cases can be lifetimes in the making, makes for an engaging, fascinating journey.

What do you think about the definition of science? Let me know at @JoeAtNotch