My Definition of a Boombastic Mode of Rational Inquiry


My Chambers dictionary (I paid for the app, so I may as well get some mileage from it) defines science as:

1. Knowledge ascertained by observation and experiment, critically tested, systematized and brought under general principles, esp in relation to the physical world.

This is a useful definition, and it seems to me to agree with the general understanding of “science” that many adult non-scientists gained at school, where science might initially appear to be a collection of facts that someone else has already worked out. But for scientists themselves, science is an active ongoing process of discovery and the refinement of existing ideas, not a settled body of knowledge*.

The very idea of “knowledge ascertained” is also problematic. “Science” was one synonymous with “knowledge” (the Latin word for knowledge is Scientia), but “knowledge” seems to me (my Chambers was not much use here) to imply certainty and finality, in contrast to “belief” which refers to perhaps temporary ideas which may turn out to be false. For example, you can say:

I used to believe in fairies, but now I know they don’t exist.

Because I think of science as an ongoing process of discovery and refinement there are few, if any, scientific ideas that I would regard as absolutely certain. But the idea that science creates a unique form of understanding may be a bit of a red herring. For me, science is about using evidence to reduce uncertainty about how nature works. When that uncertainty seems almost to have vanished completely, we can talk informally about “knowledge”, but in my view knowledge is nothing more than a set of well-founded and coherent beliefs. Philosophers are interested in how we know whether something is true. When you think about this carefully it is a very difficult question. However, in my experience scientists are pragmatic people who are interested in “what works”.

For me, this means being able to explain existing observations clearly and simply, being able to predict the outcomes of new experiments and being able develop new and effective devices and technologies. I don’t think these criteria are controversial, most scientists would go along with them perhaps with one or two caveats. If an idea meets these criteria its certainly useful, and it could even be true. I don’t think we can ever know with certainty that something is absolutely true, because it is always possible some new and challenging evidence could come to light. Almost inevitably, some of the things we think we “know” will turn out to be wrong. But I am comfortable with that because I can see abundant evidence that, in the long run, science works.

Let’s revise the Chambers definition to take these points into account:

Science is the process of using evidence to develop and refine a body of useful, well-founded, testable beliefs about the natural world.

And that’s my definition of a boombastic mode of rational inquiry. What’s yours?

 I found a nice collection of definitions of science on the University of Georgia’s Department of Geology website. According to these pages, Dr Bruce Railsback runs a course on the history of the world, and his pages on “what is science?” are a prerequisite for the course. I chose the following quotes from a bigger set, because they resonate most strongly with my own beliefs about science.

I think that we shall have to get accustomed to the idea that we must not look upon science as a “body of knowledge”, but rather as a system of hypotheses, or as a system of guesses or anticipations that in principle cannot be justified, but with which we work as long as they stand up to tests, and of which we are never justified in saying that we know they are “true” . . .
Karl R. Popper (1902-1994), The Logic of Scientific Discovery

We [scientists] wouldn’t know truth if it jumped up and bit us in the ass. We’re probably fairly good at recognizing what’s false, and that’s what science does on a day-to-day basis, but we can’t claim to identify truth.
Dr. Steven M. Holland, University of Georgia Geology Professor

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

Richard Feynman, Nobel-prize-winning physicist, in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out as quoted in American Scientist v. 87, p. 462 (1999).

More science definitions:

*[This is increasingly recognized in the school curriculum and by younger non-scientists.]


Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

6 thoughts on “My Definition of a Boombastic Mode of Rational Inquiry”

  1. This isn’t exactly a definition but I like it nonetheless. A lot of my interest in science stems from counterintuitive ideas, so this sums this up nicely:“The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually didn’t know” Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  2. How true. And I think science is also about defending us from human failings, especially reasoning errors, cognitive biases, conformity, fraud and superstition.

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