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What is so special about ‘science’?

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 13 March 2015


As I have said a few times, I had to choose between science and the humanities when I was 15, and from time to time I have regretted the choice I made, though I have greatly enjoyed my working life. Given what has happened to science since the emergence of the AGW question, I keep on being saddened by the failure of the academy to deal with the way in which science is being traduced by the ‘climate change’ fuss. In that context I came across something I wrote about science more than twenty years ago. It holds up pretty well, I think. It is a longer essay than usual.

The business of policymaking about research, not only in Australia but in all English-speaking countries, has been complicated by what is seen as the special position of the physical and biological sciences. For many ‘scientists’, and we shall return to issues of language in a moment, real research is ‘science’; everything else is mucking about. For the lay person, ‘science’ is a mixture of mystery, promise and threat, all couched in utterly incomprehensible talk. For researchers in other fields, ‘science’ can often be seen as an apparently well-organised overbearing pressure group, contemptuous of everything but its own concerns. For those running universities, ‘science’ is an unending demand for more money, with threats of institutional disaster should the funds not be forthcoming.

The inverted commas around the word are necessary because the word ‘science’ has many meanings. It is very similar to the Latin word for ‘knowledge’, scientia, and it came into English use in the Middle Ages to refer to the kind of knowledge acquired by study and then, by extension, to a particular branch of knowledge acquired that way. In the 18th century it acquired the additional sense of being a body of knowledge based on the systematic classification of observed facts united in some way by general principles and by methods for adding to this knowledge. In the early 21st century in English-speaking countries it means the disciplines taught in faculties of science in universities, essentially, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, geology and their sub-fields and cross-fields.

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The facility of our language to employ a number of alternative words for the one thing is part of its suppleness and beauty. English already possessed the word ‘knowledge’, which was of ancient origin (there are sister words in all European languages as well as in Greek and Latin). We also have the word ‘learning’. These three words are at times interchangeable, but there are subtle differences in their use. Increasingly, ‘science’ has become the thing that ‘scientists’ do, and while that is more than simply acquire knowledge or learning it is not transparently clear what the essential difference between ‘science’ and other branches of learning is.

This linguistic situation hardly arises in other languages, to the best of my knowledge. Typically, the central noun is ‘knowledge’ and it is qualified by the appropriate adjective. In German, for example, the organising noun is Wissenschaft (knowledge, distantly related to the English word ‘wisdom’). What we call ‘science’ is in German ‘Naturwissenschaften’. What we call the ‘humanities’ becomes ‘Geisteswissenschaften’ (knowledge of the spirit or mind).   And so on.

Around the word ‘science’, people called ‘scientists’ have practised what in sociology is called ‘closure’: science has become a form of territory, and strangers are warned off. You can see that in discussions about ‘climate change’. ‘Who are you to be discussing our thing?’ you will be asked. Science has become a learned profession: much effort and ability is required to enter it, a special language is used to communicate to other members, regulation is done within the profession not from outside it, there is a well-defined pecking order, the business of distributing honour is a serious one, and the recruitment of the able young into the profession is of high priority. Science, it is clear, will live forever, or at least for longer than the present generation of scientists.

You could say much the same about the humanities or the social sciences, but not nearly to the same degree. Why not? Why is science different? Why is there once again a Minister for Science, but not for any other branch of learning? Why are there so many prizes for science, but so few for other branches of learning? Why does government, why do newspapers and the other media, appear to take science so seriously?

There are some substantial differences between science and other branches of learning. There are also some substantial similarities, and perhaps we should deal with those first. First, the process of discovery and creation in all disciplines is much the same. All research seems to focus on patterns and anomalies, the search for better explanations, for general explanations, for the solution to puzzles that are important to the researcher. Success in that endeavour is measured by others, both as to the importance of the puzzle and the ingenuity and elegance of the solution. The moment of discovery seems to be the same not only in all forms of knowledge but in the arts as well.

Second, all branches of knowledge require not only intense dedication and discipline on the part of their best practitioners but also the acquisition of certain technical skills. Without those skills, it will be said, one cannot really ‘understand’ physics (or economics, or ancient history). Third, all branches of knowledge are, to varying degrees, competitive and international. Fourth, all contribute to the improvement of human existence, though their capacity to do so varies over time, and not everyone agrees either as to what constitutes an improvement or as to which improvements are more important than others.

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The principal difference, I think, is that science aims to understand the physical environment and, at least implicitly, to control it. If human life is pictured as the struggle of an organism to overcome the limitations of its physical environment, then science has been the triumphant tool in humanity’s increasing success in doing so. This does not, at least in my opinion, make it more important than other forms of knowledge. Humans have also yearned, perhaps more poignantly, to live in peace with each other, to develop their own capacities, to find satisfying employment which feeds, clothes and houses them and leaves something over, and to love and be thought worth loving in return. Science has little to say, at least directly, about these concerns, and they are as old as human life itself.

Then, and because the universe seems everywhere to be composed in the same way, science works towards the elucidation of ‘general laws of nature’ which, when discovered, become the basis for the next set of questions. Science is thus cumulative in a most powerful way, and the advance in the 20th century of our understanding of the nature of matter, energy and life itself has been astonishing. There is no reason to suppose that this advance will stop or slow down. It ought to be said at the same time that science has many fields, and that their advance has been at different speeds. Physics had a great run from the late 19th century to the mid 20th; biology has moved very much more quickly in the second half of the 20th century than it did in the first half.

It ought to be noted, as a side comment, that there is no single correct way of ‘doing’ science, and no single appropriate objective in doing it. There are, for example, no general laws in biology with the power and simplicity of those in physics, and it may be doubted whether there can be. There are, even more strikingly, no such laws in the social sciences or the humanities, and here the possibility of such laws is widely seen as unlikely and even as undesirable. Human beings are not elementary particles. They resist being studied, far more than do particles, and will adapt their behaviour if they become aware that research is being undertaken on them.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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