Is Science Defined By What Scientists Do?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Frustrated by an inability to rule out certain “unscientific” ideas (e.g., intelligent design) by using epistemological criteria, some scientists and philosophers simply make the claim that science is what scientists do. Or put another way, science is defined by the institutions that practice science.

Professor of biology Austin L. Hughes, however, believes this way of defining science is fraught with problems. In his essay, “The Folly of Scientism,” he argues the following:

By this criterion, we would differentiate good science from bad science simply by asking which proposals agencies like the National Science Foundation deem worthy of funding, or which papers peer-review committees deem worthy of publication.

So what is the harm in this approach to defining science? Hughes explains:

The problems with this definition of science are myriad. First, it is essentially circular: science simply is what scientists do.

Second, the high confidence in funding and peer-review panels should seem misplaced to anyone who has served on these panels and witnessed the extent to which preconceived notions, personal vendettas, and the like can torpedo even the best proposals. Moreover, simplistically defining science by its institutions is complicated by the ample history of scientific institutions that have been notoriously unreliable.

Can Hughes provide an example of an unreliable scientific institution?

Consider the decades during which Soviet biology was dominated by the ideologically motivated theories of the geneticist Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics as inconsistent with Marxism and insisted that acquired characteristics could be inherited. An observer who distinguishes good science from bad science “by reference to institutional factors” alone would have difficulty seeing the difference between the unproductive and corrupt genetics in the Soviet Union and the fruitful research of Watson and Crick in 1950s Cambridge.

Can we be certain that there are not sub-disciplines of science in which even today most scientists accept without question theories that will in the future be shown to be as preposterous as Lysenkoism? Many working scientists can surely think of at least one candidate — that is, a theory widely accepted in their field that is almost certainly false, even preposterous.

Yes, Soviet biology was screwed up for a while, but the beauty of science is that it is self-correcting, right? Scientists may get something wrong for a few years, but eventually they get it right, don’t they? Hughes anticipates this objection:

Confronted with such examples, defenders of the institutional approach will often point to the supposedly self-correcting nature of science. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett assert that “although scientific progress is far from smooth and linear, it never simply oscillates or goes backwards. Every scientific development influences future science, and it never repeats itself.”

Alas, in the thirty or so years I have been watching, I have observed quite a few scientific sub-fields (such as behavioral ecology) oscillating happily and showing every sign of continuing to do so for the foreseeable future. The history of science provides examples of the eventual discarding of erroneous theories. But we should not be overly confident that such self-correction will inevitably occur, nor that the institutional mechanisms of science will be so robust as to preclude the occurrence of long dark ages in which false theories hold sway.

Hughes is dead on target. I might add that origin of life research also seems to have gone nowhere fast over the last hundred years. Scientists still have no natural explanation for how first life appeared on earth. The dark ages persist for origin of life researchers. As grand as science is, it still has spectacular failures, like any other human undertaking. As long as the institutions of science include human beings, there will continue to be misadventures.

5 thoughts on “Is Science Defined By What Scientists Do?”

  1. I agree with the assessment of Hughes. If one were to define science as what a group of people do, then it is the perogative of those people to call whatever they want science and whatever they don’t want as not science. It seems there has always been a problem precisely defining what science is. Most people seem to intuitively know, but definitions are good when it comes to deciding what is and is not science relative to publishing and funding.

    A study of philosophy and history of science shows that theories that are not well established can fluctuate and are not so difficult to overturn. Those that might be well established, like ether theory, will eventually see so many problems that in frustration, new theories will result (like relativity and quantum) which will resplace the old one once it has some track record comes from its ability to explain and be verifiable. Some areas that are called science don’t have the verifiablity, and even in the science community they are argued as not being science (such as string theory and multiverse). Just because something has an explanation, doesn’t make it right. It MUST be verifiable or at least show it has some predictive power beyond just being an explanation. That a scientist comes up with an explanation, does make it science unless it has some verifiability or predictive power that is useful.

  2. It still all comes down to faith. There is a certain level of trust that must be assumed even in science. A scientist must trust that the data he is collecting is accurate. He must trust that his interpretation of the data is correct. And since one scientist can’t do it all, he must trust that the information that he is receiving from others is correct. Only then can he build theories, facts and knowledge. So it still all goes back to faith. Faith, aman (אמן) in Hebrew means to ‘trust in a firm foundation of truth’. So the question for every individual really comes down to “Who are you going to trust?”

  3. “He must trust that his interpretation of the data is correct.”

    Surely the whole point of the scientific method is that you subject your findings to the scrutiny of others. It’s not about trusting the data and interpretation is correct – rather it’s about assuming it might be wrong, so one allows others to vigorously test it. Even then, one just accepts that this is the best available theory, subject to further and better information.

  4. “He must trust that his interpretation of the data is correct.”

    He must assume that the human race can even produce correct interpretations in the first place.

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