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Science Is Not Simply “What Scientists Do”


Science is a method for determining facts about the natural world. As the dictionary definition has it, it is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

But too often science is hijacked by “the scientists,” who actually do something else — e.g., make ideological or ethical assertions — and call it “science.” And when they are criticized or their findings are challenged, they wield the “anti-science” canard like a cudgel to shut their critics up — a phenomenon I wrote about in more detail here.

This conflation harms science because it communicates a deconstructing message that science is just politics or ideology by another name. Keep this up, and science will become as discredited in the eyes of the public as other once venerable institutions.

Which is why I was alarmed to see physicist Sabine Hossenfelder accept as a definition of ”science,” not a method, but merely “what scientists do.”

There have been many previous attempts to define what science is, but the only definition that ever made sense to me is that science is what scientists do, and scientists are people who search for useful descriptions of nature. “Science,” then, is an emergent concept that arises in communities of people with a shared work practices. “Communities of practice,” as the sociologists say.

This is rank deconstruction. Science is what IT is, and those who actually pursue IT are “scientists” — not the other way around.

Moreover, it isn’t about “searching for useful descriptions of nature,” but accurate one, true ones, factual ones.

Sure, scientists propose, hypothesize, muse, imagine. But then the hard part comes when scientists test their ideas without fear or favor as to where the actual truth is to be found. If a promising hypothesis fails, that’s good, because failure is part of the process.

But what if we move away from defining science as an objective method? Hossenfelder foresees a division of science into “conservative” and “progressive” branches:

This brings me to my problem. If science is what scientists do, then how can anything that scientists do not be science? For a long time it seemed to me that in the end we won’t get around settling on a definition for science and holding on to it, regardless of how much I’d prefer a self-organized solution.

But as I was looking for a fossil photo to illustrate my recent post about what we mean by “explaining” something, I realized that we witness the self-organized solution right now: It’s a lineage split.

If some scientists insist on changing the old-fashioned methodology, the communities will fall apart. Let us call the two sectors “conservatives” and “progressives.” Each of them will insist they are the ones pursuing the more promising approach.

This is very subversive. We already have a definition of science. Those who want to turn it into something else — whether ideology, social justice, politics, social engineering, etc. — are the real “anti-science” ideologues.

Or to put it another way, just because someone says, “I’m a scientist doing science,” it isn’t necessarily so.

Photo credit: Becker1999 [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted at The Corner.