What is so special about ‘science’?

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.

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.

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.

It follows that science is as international an activity as it is possible to find. Its principal language is a universal one — mathematics — and its results are instantly understood in laboratories in every country. At its best it is both competitive and collaborative: scientists will be welcomed into competitors’ laboratories and shown what is being done; in return they will be expected to describe their own work. The prize goes to the most ingenious, the most creative, the quickest. The game is seen as being mostly one against nature, whose secrets are being unlocked, to use an old metaphor, rather than as a game against one another, though there’s a lot of that, too. Watson’s account of the discovery of DNA, in The Double Helix, is full of it.

The method of experimentation that is more characteristic of science than it is of other branches of learning leads to another principal difference, one that is of greatest interest to governments and those who run universities. Science is organised around research activities. These can require considerable numbers of people and lots of money. They also tend to produce a hierarchical structure of organisation. Science is not democratic in its organisational form, but autocratic. Heads of science departments and of research groups in other institutions are expected to direct what is being done by those subordinate to them; in return they are expected to provide the wherewithal to allow the subordinates to get on with their work. The amounts of money needed can be vastly greater than those needed to support the research of people in other branches of learning, and thereby flows much jealousy and anger. From the scientist’s point of view, however, such jealousy is almost irrelevant. He will say (it is usually ‘he’) that if you want good science that is competitive with that done in the best places overseas, you must be prepared to pay for it. That used to be something like a lay-down misère hand. It is no longer the case, as the amount of good research in science that might be done is now much more than governments are prepared to pay for.

Science has to its credit a high valuation for having won wars and having provided one of the bases for modern civilisation. It is hard to argue with the capacity of science to produce ever-more-effective weapons of destruction, and certainly contemporary governments have invested heavily in science as a basis for effective defence. Its contribution to modern civilisation is, however, much more a shared one. Without the linked emergence in the 18th century of the humanistic beliefs that one person’s political values are as important as another’s (which underlies representative democracy) and that one person’s wants are as valid as another’s (which underlies the market economy), public expenditure would be on a small scale, science would still be the preserve of gentleman amateurs, and the scientific profession as we know it today would not exist. The modern technologically-supported nation-state is the consequence of the innovative partnership of politics, economics and science, with none of the partners having the primary role. It is nonetheless true that science is generally given the greater credit not only by scientists themselves but by many of the wider community as well.

Finally, science is a belief system. It is not a religion, but it has quasi-religious elements, especially the belief in an ultimate purpose. And of course academics in all fields can hold to their views about things with a quasi-religious belief. Stephen Hawking concludes his A Brief History of Time with the thought that if (but he means ‘when’) science produces a unified theory it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.

The belief in what they do impels many scientists to give up great amounts of their own time to support the interests of their disciplines and of science more generally. In particular they devote much energy and attention, and on a voluntary basis, to recruiting the young and to spreading the message (literally, ‘propaganda’). I have not seen anything like that devotion in the humanities and the social sciences.

In these respects science is quite unlike the social sciences and the humanities, which are sceptical in bent, suspicious of the possibility of general laws, and generally critical rather than collaborative. Those who lead the social sciences and the humanities tend to see science as having an undue influence over government. The reality is that in comparison with themselves natural scientists have far greater belief in the virtue and power of what they do, are accustomed to thinking on a large scale, find it relatively easy to work together, and will generally support each other rather than criticise. If all that is combined with the fact that some scientific research is or could be directly related to some community needs, it is plain that science can be a formidable player in public affairs. It is certainly not as effective as scientists believe it should be, but it is a great deal more effective than the organised social sciences and the humanities. It is likely to remain so.

Paradoxically, the leaders and senior politicians in all Western countries tend to have degrees in law or in the humanities and social sciences. Mrs Thatcher did have a degree in science, in her case chemistry, while Angela Merkel went one better with a doctorate in physical chemistry. I’m sure there will be others, but they are the only  two I can think of now.

Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • PeterE says:

    This essay stands up very well after 20 years. Like you, I opted for the humanities after a few years studying physics and chemistry, which I liked. Back then (1950s) our teachers were at pains to oppose the objectivity of science against superstitions of all kinds. Then, in the second half of the 1960s especially, there came a wave of regression to superstitious ways of thought across many disciplines. There was a deliberate muddying of the waters; homeopathy challenged medicine; cultural relativism crept in; multiculturalism confused the rule of law; the unelected UN sought to override national legislation; and science became political. Once more we must challenge superstition and muddled thinking wherever we find it.

  • aert driessen says:

    Thanks Don, a very eloquent and evergreen piece. I think your quandary falls into the basket of one of life’s imponderables — ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’ etc; probably L and R side of the brain stuff. That said I note big changes in the culture of science in my own life’s experience, all driven by the $. I witnessed company Boards replacing science and engineering-skilled people with lawyers and accountants, which changed everything. Later in my career in the government sector (BMR, now Geoscience Australia) I saw the ‘science culture’ of that organisation, also CSIRO observed from the outside, change from ‘basic research’ (at least a portion of their work) to what was called ‘mission-oriented’ research. That’s the beginning of the end because that lays it open to political influence. The same is happening in sport, still driven by the $, albeit by different parties. I played rugby (the heavenly code) because it filled a passion in me. That was enough and the shared culture of like-minded people was cream on the cake. Now it’s all for the money — players, sponsors, the media, etc, etc. I think they call it progress. The saddest thing in all of this with particular reference to so-called ‘climate change’ and the Australian Academy of Science is how this institution has sold its soul by not defending the Scientific Method, as was their duty. Did they do it for the money or did they just feel unloved and unappreciated? Keep up the good work.

  • David says:

    I reckon one of the differences is that “hard” scientists often
    finish their research with a question whereas social scientists are more likely
    to finish with a conclusion.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      In my experience, virtually all published research finishes with the thought that more research needs to be done! 🙂

      • David says:

        In an ideal world perhaps. But I think we could both agree that a lot of “ideology” can creep into social science. 🙂

  • kvd says:

    “Science” i.e. what the good Prof calls “science” as opposed to “humanities” provoked this comment on another discussion:

    Science has its own sacred tenets:

    1) Eschew supernatural explanations
    2) Seek facts
    3) Never dissemble
    4) Independently verify empirical results
    5) Referee articles before publication
    6) Don’t shave, but, if you must, use Occam’s razor

    Made me smile, and also nod in agreement.

  • margaret says:

    “Science has to its credit a high valuation for having won wars and
    having provided one of the bases for modern civilisation. It is hard to
    argue with the capacity of science to produce ever-more-effective
    weapons of destruction, and certainly contemporary governments have
    invested heavily in science as a basis for effective defence.”

    Yay! Go science! (She says sarcastically.)

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I don’t think the Chief Scientist referred at all to defence in his speech the other day extolling the virtues of science. Funny, that.

      • margaret says:

        Oppenheimer was a brilliant scientist who felt he had blood on his hands after Nagasaki. I think he had blood on his hands from Hiroshima as well…

        “Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful”.

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