Unusual Definitions of "Science"

Unusual Definitions of "Science"
Bac Totrong/Daily News via AP
Unusual Definitions of "Science"
Bac Totrong/Daily News via AP
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In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences put forth a textbook-ish definition of "science": "The use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process."

That's fine, well, and accurate, but it's also a tad dull. Over the years, influential scientists and philosophers have taken their own stabs at describing the discipline to which they have dedicated their lives. What they've written has been elucidating and occasionally odd.

Philip Morris Hauser, a demographer and pioneer in urban studies who was a president of the American Sociological Association, expressed that science is  "the most subversive thing that has ever been devised by man. It is a discipline in which the rules of the game require the undermining of that which already exists, in the sense that new knowledge always necessarily crowds out inferior antecedent knowledge."

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman agreed, but he focused instead on out-of-date fountains of knowledge, saying, "Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation... As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

Acknowledging this ignorance in experts, but also within ourselves, is key to fruitful scientific pursuits. As humans, we are fallible, easy to fool, and frequently wander astray. That means we have to constantly scrutinize our own positions and beliefs, for they could be wrong. That's why philosopher Robert M. Pirsig wrote, "The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something you don't actually know."

Unfortunately, some scientists are deceived by Nature, a status revealed through overconfidence in their eloquently articulated yet unevidenced theories. This leads to what legendary biologist Thomas Henry Huxley called "The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."

Others might disagree with calling this a "tragedy." Mathematician and cosmologist Hermann Bondi referred to a more subtle, yet powerful, beauty in science: "the ability to say something without having to say everything."


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