What is Science?

Sometimes an easy way to define something is through thinking of what it is not. While considering pseudo-science in At the Fringes of Science, Michael Friedlander has to start by describing what is science.

At the Fringes of Science: Science, Science Contested and Pseudo-Science
by Michael W. Friedlander
Westview Press, 1998
ISBN 0813390605, 9780813390604
Preview on Google Books

If we judge a science and its theories by the simple test of their usefulness for making accurate and generally quantitative predictions, we find ... that mathematics has become an indispensable language for describing the relationships between various quantities and for permitting the manipulation of those relationships to yield insights and predictions that would be totally impossible if words alone were used. When evaluated in this way, the physical sciences have been the most successful sciences largely because it has been possible to reduce their complexity to the scale of controllable and inanimate systems, with the focus of attention on a very few quantities to the exclusion of all others. In the biological and medical sciences, it is not as easy to identify much less exclude unwanted variables in the study of living organisms, but the application of molecular and cell methods has produced a revolution in some areas.

In a similar vein, while considering Science in the Islamic World, Pervez Hoodbhoy identified critical components of a scientific worldview by contrast with the tenets of religious fundamentalism.

Scientific progress constantly demands that facts and hypotheses be checked and rechecked, and is unmindful of authority. But there lies the problem: The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed religious thought. Only the exceptional individual is able to exercise such a mindset in a society in which absolute authority comes from above, questions are asked only with difficulty, the penalties for disbelief are severe, the intellect is denigrated, and a certainty exists that all answers are already known and must only be discovered.

Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or "butterfly-collecting" activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked.

History of Science and Philosophy

Reflecting on the history of science provides another pathway to a better understanding of the scientific method.

Lectures on the Harvard Classics provide excellent historical summaries for Natural Science and Philosophy.

Lectures on the Harvard Classics
edited by William Allan Neilson
P.F. Collier & Son Co., 190914; Bartleby.com, 2001
Full text on Bartleby.com

Improving Science Education

Science can be difficult to both teach and learn. These resources offer some helpful advice.

Ethics in Science

Broadly defined, two classes of ethical issues arise in connection with scientific research. First, is the ethics of the actual research conduct, which includes carrying out and reporting on investigations in an honest and unbiased matter, fair treatment of colleagues and subordinates, respect for and acknowledgment of intellectual contributions of others, and a host of other rules, habits, and practices that help to promote and sustain the research enterprise. The second class of ethical questions that scientists have to consider are those related to the broad impact of their research, which includes both the impact while conducting the research itself (e.g., ethical treatment of research subjects) and the impact of potential future applications (e.g., medical or military use, environmental impact).

From the APS Statement on Treatment of Subordinates (Adopted by the APS Council, April 30, 2004).

Subordinates should be treated with respect and with concern for their well being. Supervisors have the responsibility to facilitate the research, educational, and professional development of subordinates, to provide a safe, supportive working environment and fair compensation, and to promote the timely advance of graduate students and young researchers to the next stage of career development. In addition, supervisors should ensure that subordinates know how to appeal decisions without fear of retribution.

Contributions of subordinates should be properly acknowledged in publications, presentations, and performance appraisals. In particular, subordinates who have made significant contributions to the concept, design, execution, or interpretation of a research study should be afforded the opportunity of authorship of resulting publications, consistent with APS Guidelines for Professional Conduct.

Supervisors and/or other senior scientists should not be listed on papers of subordinates unless they have also contributed significantly to the concept, design, execution or interpretation of the research study.

The Ethics Center of the National Academy of Engineering offers additional resources and information.