Michael Battalio

Friday, October 30, 2015

Serious conversations (part 64): What is science - part 2

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – sixty-ninth entries deal with the nature of science.

Before we summarized the conversation we will have.  In essence, we are trying to determine who is a scientist and why is it we have this hierarchy in science.  Now, we get to the question at hand.

So what is science?  A first, working definition might be the systematic observation of nature to elucidate facts with the goal of describing laws or formulae to generalize some phenomena.  This leads to a lot of questions.  Must science have the end of brand new knowledge?  Is science the actual research and discovery of new knowledge or does it include the repetitive grunt work too (like performing labs in a doctor's office or is even a medical doctor practicing science?)?  As humans are a part of nature, is the study of history or music or art or even the analysis of sports statistics also science?  Given this broad definition, then what is not science?

This is a bit overwhelming, and I fear I’m going to have to rely on intuition to lead me.  I don’t think science requires the discovery of new knowledge.  It could be the redefinition of knowledge in a new paradigm (like atomic theory for instance).  I also think that the reproduction of knowledge at its most basic form is still science, so I think that duplication is still science. Consider a student in a Chemistry 1 lab.  Say they are producing salicylic acid.  Are they performing science?  Given the definition that science is systematic observation of nature to discover facts and then formulate laws about nature, at first glance what they are doing is not science because the production of aspirin is a well described process.  It is not new; they are not contributing to the knowledge of nature.  Here are two counter points:  One, since they are reproducing the method, are they not in some minute way proving that method?  Doesn’t that have scientific value, even though it has been done probably millions of times?  By reproducing it, they prove the method accurate again.  Demonstrating something to be a fact requires reproducibility.  Two, expanding the knowledge of humanity can have two definitions.  You could be expanding the knowledge of all of humanity (all ~40 billion of us that have existed) or you could expand the knowledge of the one person, yourself.  By performing the experiment, the student increases their own knowledge of nature.  It is a personal science.  Considering these points, I argue that even a student performing a basic experiment that has already been proven is still doing science.  Given this definition almost everything is science in some form.

  As far as the where to draw the line to call science, I am open to a debate on that.  There are definitely components of art and music that are science based, like the spacing of notes or the definition of intervals or keys in music or the color wheel in art.  However, you cannot ascribe scientific methodology to aesthetics.  Aesthetics is something we could spend a whole discussion on in and of itself.  So I would say that art and music have components of science that help us define why some types of music or art are more appealing to us, but science cannot define why some people like country music or don’t like classical.

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