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What is Science

Some answers to the question: what is science?

People want to know what science is.

One day they hear that something is good for them, the next day that it is bad. A typical example is when the British newspaper Daily Telegraph headlined "Red wine could help prevent breast cancer" a few weeks after having headlined "A little alcohol increases breast cancer risk": not only the newspaper was the same, the journalist writing both articles was the same.

Global warming is another example of a subject where there is a lot of confusion and the public hear different things.

Generally people at large are not interested in specialist scientific subjects, but in certain areas science and the public opinion converge. People are interested in some fields and aspects of science, especially in matters of health, nutrition, the environment, in a word in things in which their direct interests, in various ways, are at stake.

This is when many people realize that there is sometimes disagreement among the specialists and experts, and the question of what constitutes "real science" and "bad science" emerges.

In the Science section of this site we will attempt to answer this question. In fact, we understand what science is not only by looking at examples of it but also by examining what science is not and observing examples of pseudo-science.

The answers to the question of what science is are obviously not simple; we all like simplicity, but certain things cannot be made as simple as we'd like. Philosophers of science have debated this for centuries, and some have come up with solutions which may be partial but helpful.

One distinction to make is between what is scientific and what is true. Scientific theories and statements are not defined by their truth status. They are characterized by the methods used in their formulation and general handling. Many scientific theories of the past have been later discarded because proven false and are not held today; that does not alter their scientific status. "Scientific" is not a synonym for "true".

There are two broad schools of thought about what governs science. One, which is probably closer to the public perception of science, believes that science starts with a collection of facts which then lead to general conclusions: this process is called induction, going from the particular to the general, and this theory of science is called inductivism. It is now overall abandoned.

The other major opinion is that science starts not with observations of facts but with hypotheses, from which observable assertions are logically deduced. The latter have therefore the role of predictions: if the phenomena described by them occur the theory is confirmed, otherwise the theory is disproven or falsified. Deduction, going from the general to the particular, is the opposite process of induction.

This school of thought says that science is a hypothetic-deductive system, and was introduced by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper, whose main work is The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Amazon USA) or Amazon UK .

Popper, who taught at the London School of Economics and was not only a philosopher of science but also a political philosopher, has been extremely influential and his views on science are now largely recognized as more accurate than the previous inductivist views.

Indeed, if you think about it, the starting point of science can hardly be the observation of "facts". There is an infinite number of facts to be observed. How is a scientist to choose from them? The reason why a particular phenomenon is noticed is in the theoretical framework of the observer: in other words, there must be already a hypothesis formulated in the scientist's mind before s/he pays attention to an event rather than another.

Another philosopher and historian of science whose theories are influential today is Thomas Kuhn, author of the landmark essay The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Amazon USA) or Amazon UK . He says that science goes through two cyclical phases (stages): normal science and scientific revolution. During normal science, a theory prevails in a particular field, a theory widely accepted by the community of the scientists working in that field, theory that Kuhn calls a "paradigm". When the limitations and problems of the paradigm become apparent or insurmountable, a new theory is proposed, which is at odds with the prevailing theory and initially finds obstacles to being accepted. So we enter the stage of the scientific revolution, until the new theory is accepted as the new paradigm and another time of normal science begins, and the cycle starts all over again.


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