[ASC-list] definition of science
david at davidellyard.com
Mon Dec 8 23:53:58 UTC 2008
Thanks for your question.
There are any number of well known definitions of science, but they usually
too snappy to be complete or even very useful. eg TH Huxley's "science is
nothing but trained and organised common sense". (I actually think this
definition is wrong. Much of science, eg in physics, runs contrary to
I like George Sarton's "Science is systematized positive knowledge, or what
has been taken as such in different ages or in different places".
This underlines the ephemeral nature of scientific statements, which can
change as new phenomena are discovered or as new techniques of investigation
are developed (or as different questions are asked). I take "positive" to
mean statements that can be tested (or falsified, at least in principle) by
observation and experiment.
Sarton has a "theorem" that follows from his definition. "The acquisition
and systematization of positive knowledge (ie science) are the only human
activities which are truly cumulative and progressive". I tend to go along
with that, though I would say "can be" rather than "are".
None of this says what science is for. We cannot really say, for example, as
some would, "The role of science is to promote human welfare" since it has
often been used for the opposite purpose.
If I might have a go at a definition (a bit longer than most), dealing with
what science does rather than what it is.
"Science provides a set of interim statements (hypotheses) as to why various
parts of the natural order (or "nature" or "the universe") behave as they
do. These statements are derived from and tested against observation and
experiment. Their value/ usefulness is that they can generate predictions
as to how the natural order will behave in a given set of circumstances".
This I think covers the case of your chemists working with "artificial
molecules". The particular molecules may not exist in nature, but they
follow the same patterns of behaviour ("laws") as "natural molecules" and
that is why their behaviour can be predicted (eg enhanced ability to target
From: asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au
[mailto:asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au] On Behalf Of Michael David Moylan
Sent: Monday, 8 December 2008 6:29 PM
To: list at asc.asn.au
Subject: [ASC-list] definition of science
Does anyone have a good definition of science?
I'm helping to write a response to the National Science Curriculum Framing
They define science as "a way of answering questions about the natural
world" (paragraph 12, page 5), and I am very uncomfortable about that
The majority of the research chemists I work with do not investigate the
natural world. Some make and study artificial molecules to cure
well-understood diseases. Others investigate nanometer-sized objects that
don't form naturally. They might be manipulating the natural world or trying
to improve the the natural world but they are not answering questions about
the natural world.
I would also like to have an adjective between "a" and "way". Something like
"a useful way", or even "a systematic way"...
I'd appreciate your suggestions.
Chemistry Outreach Fellow
Victorian Institute for Chemical Sciences
School of Chemistry
University of Melbourne, VIC, 3010
p +61 (0)3 83446465 f +61 (0)3 93475180
e mmoylan at unimelb.edu.au
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