What Makes Science Special?

30.04.2019 |

Episode #1 of the course How science works by Benjamin Keep


Welcome to How Science Works!

This is a course about what it means to do science and have scientific knowledge. In the next ten lessons, we will cover several different answers to the question of how science works, addressing issues about the nature of scientific explanations, the role of instruments in creating scientific knowledge, the role of evidence in resolving scientific controversies, and much more. To discuss these issues, I draw on what is now called “science studies” literature: stuff written by folks who want to explore science (as opposed to stars, plants, animals, or chemicals) as an object of study.

I first started taking courses on the history and philosophy of science as a law student. After working as an attorney at the intersection of science and law, I pursued (and completed) a PhD, focusing on the development of scientific reasoning and new forms of scientific research. Now, you’re stuck with me for the next ten lessons!


What Is It about Science?

Science is special. We give “scientific” findings more credit than your old-timey uncle talking about his days in the rodeo. But how special is it? And what makes it so?

Science offers compelling explanations about the world around us—often non-intuitive ones. The tiny lights you see at night are giant balls of burning gas hurtling at unimaginable speeds trillions of miles away from us. Science also the backbone of modern technological development. Every time we look up directions somewhere on our phones, the software has to account for important things, like relativity. Scientific findings aren’t always right—in fact, there are almost never completely correct descriptions of some phenomena. But science has a pretty good track record.

Science is also, however, historically contingent. Scientific knowledge always has the potential of being overturned. Newtonian physics was (and still is) immensely powerful for predicting the motion of the heavens. But if you thought it was “the truth” about planetary motion in the late 1800s, you would be facing strong arguments against your beliefs by the early 1900s when relativity came on the scene.

It’s also a social enterprise. Scientists do a great deal of tedious work: preparing chemicals, writing endless articles and grant applications, and fiddling with that broken instrument that never works quite right. Scientists argue with one another. They form friendships and long-lasting collaborations. They get jealous and frustrated. They decide to go in one research direction instead of another.

Something about this whole system creates knowledge that we can, for the most part, rely on. But what? The rest of this course tries to answer this question.


A First Stab: Reason and Experience

There’s something about the way that reason and experience fit together that makes science a particularly productive way of learning about the world.

Reason alone seems inadequate. Plato could spend a hundred lifetimes thinking about the way the world should be, without creating modern scientific knowledge. You can’t reason your way into knowing that there are over 40 species of dolphins in the world—or that there are dolphins at all! It seems equally unlikely—to me, at least—that you could reason your way into the laws of thermodynamics, without, say, working with experiments, instruments, and mathematical models. Even if you came up with the idea, how would you know it had any relationship to how the world actually works?

And not just any kind of reasoning will do. Science adds knowledge—or at least, proposes knowledge—in a way that classical deductive reasoning does not. Deductive reasoning involves figuring out what must be true given a set of premises: All penguins have beaks; this animal is a penguin; therefore, this animal has a beak. With this kind of reasoning, we can be sure that the conclusion is true (given the premise). But we can never go beyond the information contained in the premise. What functions do beaks have? Why does a penguin have a beak and not some other mouth type? Certain kinds of questions require experience to answer.

But not just any kind of experience will do either. Some experiences are trustworthy. Some experiences are not. We are all, in fact, spinning around the earth’s axis at about 1,000 miles an hour. Doesn’t seem that way, does it? Often, scientific findings explicitly reject our everyday sensory experience. Rather, science structures experience to learn about the world. Scientists define variables precisely, measure them in standardized, repeatable ways, and manipulate variables carefully.

Any description of how science works has to propose ways that reason and experience work together.


One Model of How Science Works

Let’s begin by proposing a model of science that is in line with a few of our intuitions. It’s close to how I thought about science before I started thinking too hard about it.

• Science reveals actual truths about the world. So, for example, oxygen exists. It exists whether we call it oxygen or fluzzipop; it exists with or without us; it exists here and halfway across the universe.

• In science, we go about proving things true through something called the scientific method. All sciences use this method, and if you don’t use this method, you’re not doing science.

• Evidence determines whether scientific theories are accepted or not. When two competing theories try to explain the same phenomenon, scientists should (and do) favor the one with more evidence to support it.

• Scientific understandings are accumulative. We’ll know more tomorrow than we knew yesterday. We’ll know more ten years from now than we will five years from now.

Our model is a bit aspirational: It’s how we’d like science to be. You may notice, however, some tension between these ideas. Is the idea that scientific knowledge always progresses (point 4) compatible with the idea that it’s revealing truths about the world (point 1)? If we were wrong about things before, it seems likely we’re wrong about things now.

The rest of this course will raise questions about all aspects of this model, drawing from ideas in the philosophy, history, and sociology of science. The next lesson discusses the complexity of gaining knowledge through experience and tackles the first part of point 2: How easy is it to prove things true?


Question to ponder

What kinds of answers to the question of “how science works” would satisfy you?


Recommended book

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science by Kent W. Stanley


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