There is an old parable — not sure if it comes from someone famous I should be citing, or whether I read it in some obscure book years ago — about a lexicographer who was tasked with defining the word “taxi.” Thing is, she lived and worked in a country where every single taxi was yellow, and every single non-taxi car was blue. Makes for an extremely simple definition, she concluded: “Taxis are yellow cars.”
Hopefully the problem is obvious. While that definition suffices to demarcate the differences between taxis and non-taxis in that particular country, it doesn’t actually capture the essence of what makes something a taxi at all. The situation was exacerbated when loyal readers of her dictionary visited another country, in which taxis were green. “Outrageous,” they said. “Everyone knows taxis aren’t green. You people are completely wrong.”
The taxis represent Science.
(It’s usually wise not to explain your parables too explicitly; it cuts down on the possibilities of interpretation, which limits the size of your following. Jesus knew better. But as Bob Dylan said in a related context, “You’re not Him.”)
Defining the concept of “science” is a notoriously tricky business. In particular, there is long-running debate over the demarcation problem, which asks where we should draw the line between science and non-science. I won’t be providing any final answers to this question here. But I do believe that we can parcel out the difficulties into certain distinct classes, based on a simple scheme for describing how science works. Essentially, science consists of the following three-part process:
- Think of every possible way the world could be. Label each way an “hypothesis.”
- Look at how the world actually is. Call what you see “data” (or “evidence”).
- Where possible, choose the hypothesis that provides the best fit to the data.
The steps are not necessarily in chronological order; sometimes the data come first, sometimes it’s the hypotheses. This is basically what’s known as the hypothetico-deductive method, although I’m intentionally being more vague because I certainly don’t think this provides a final-answer definition of “science.”
The reason why it’s hard to provide a cut-and-dried definition of “science” is that every one of these three steps is highly problematic in its own way. Number 3 is probably the trickiest; any finite amount of data will generally underdetermine a choice of hypothesis, and we need to rely on imprecise criteria for deciding between theories. (Thomas Kuhn suggested five values that are invoked in making such choices: accuracy, simplicity, consistency, scope, and fruitfulness. A good list, but far short of an objective algorithm.) But even numbers 1 and 2 would require a great deal more thought before they rose to the level of perfect clarity. It’s not easy to describe how we actually formulate hypotheses, nor how we decide which data to collect. (Problems that are vividly narrated in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, among other places.)
But I think it’s a good basic outline. What you very often find, however, are folks who try to be a bit more specific and programmatic in their definition of science, and end up falling into the trap of our poor lexicographic enthusiasts: they mistake the definition for the thing being defined.
Along these lines, you will sometimes hear claims such as these:
- “Science assumes naturalism, and therefore cannot speak about the supernatural.”
- “Scientific theories must make realistically falsifiable predictions.”
- “Science must be based on experiments that are reproducible.”
In each case, you can kind of see why one might like such a claim to be true — they would make our lives simpler in various ways. But each one of these is straightforwardly false.
I’ve talked about the supernatural issue a couple of times before. Short version: if a so-called supernatural phenomenon has strictly no effect on anything we can observe about the world, then indeed it is not subject to scientific investigation. It’s also completely irrelevant, of course, so who cares? If it does have an effect, than of course science can investigate it, within the above scheme. Why not? Science does not presume the world is natural; most scientists have concluded that the world is natural because that’s the best explanation for what we observe. If you are ever confused about what “science” has to say about something, just ask yourself what actual scientists would do. If real scientists were faced with a purportedly supernatural phenomenon, they wouldn’t just shrug their shoulders because it wasn’t part of their definition of science. They would investigate it and try to come up with the best possible explanation.
The falsifiability question is a trickier one, to which I will not do justice here. It’s a charge that is frequently leveled against string theory and the multiverse, as you probably have heard. People who like to wield the falsifiability cudgel often cite Karl Popper, who purportedly solved the demarcation problem by stating that scientific theories are ones that could in principle be falsified. (Lenny Susskind calls these folks the “Popperazzi.”) It’s the kind of simple, robust, don’t-have-to-think-too-hard philosophy that even a scientist can get behind. Of course, string theory and the multiverse aren’t at all the kinds of things Popper had in mind when he criticized “unfalsifiable” ideas. His bugaboos were Marx’s theory of history, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Adlerian psychology. The problem with these theories, he (correctly) pointed out, was that they told stories that could be made to fit literally any collection of data. Not just “data we could realistically acquire,” but absolutely anything you could imagine happening in the world. That’s completely different from the examples of string theory or the multiverse, which clearly are saying something concrete about the world (the ultraviolet completion of quantum gravity, or conditions in the universe far outside our observable region), but to which we have no experimental access (or almost none). Of course, there’s also the issue that the demarcation problem is a lot trickier than naive Popperianism makes it out to be, but that’s another discussion. The right strategy, once again, is to look at what actual scientists would do or are doing. When faced with difficult problems concerning quantum gravity or the early universe, they follow precisely the outlined program: they invent hypotheses and try to see which one is the best explanation for the data. The fact that the data are relatively crude (the existence of gravity and gauge theory, the known cosmological parameters) doesn’t prevent it from being science.
Noah Smith (an economist) wrote an interesting post related to the “reproducibility” question. It’s another bugaboo, often raised by creationists who want to take jabs at evolution. As a working cosmologist, I know perfectly well that not all good science requires reproducible experiments. We haven’t made a Big Bang in the laboratory — yet. Few of the folks who emphasize reproducibility would go so far as to claim that cosmology (and much of astrophysics) doesn’t count as “science.” Instead, they say things like “Oh, but in cosmology you’re comparing data to theories that are developed here in Earth in response to laboratory experiments, so it’s a more complicated give-and-take.” Yes it is! What they should admit is that all of science involves this more complicated and subtle kind of give-and-take between theories and experiments.
Nothing in our three-step definition of science refers to “reproducibility” (any more than it refers to “naturalism” or “falsifiability”). The key feature of science is that it is empirical — progress is made by comparing multiple plausible theories to actual data — rather than rationalist/logical — deriving truths from reason alone. But when it comes to collecting those data, the only rule is “do the best you can.” Sometimes we’re lucky enough to be able to reproduce conditions exactly (Noah’s “Level Four”), but often we are not. What matters is that there are data, and that attempting to account for them is how we choose between various hypotheses that would have otherwise been plausible or at least conceivable. This might mean that some scientific questions are harder to decide than other ones, but that sounds like the least surprising conclusion in the world.
Some will object that this conception of science is too broad, and encompasses not only economics but also fields like history. To which I can only say, sure. I’ve never really thought there was an important distinction of underlying philosophy between what scientists do and what historians do; it’s all sifting through possibilities on the basis of empirical evidence.
Which is not to say that every worthwhile intellectual endeavor is a version of science in some way. Math and logic are not science, because they don’t involve steps 2 or 3. They are all about figuring out all possible ways that things could be, whether or not things actually are that way in our real world.
On the other hand, things like aesthetics and morality aren’t science either, because they require an additional ingredient — a way to pass judgment, to say that something is beautiful/ugly or right/wrong. Science doesn’t care about that stuff; it describes how the world is, rather than prescribing how it should be. You may think that there are objectively true statements one can make within these realms (“killing babies is wrong,” “Justin Bieber sucks”). But whether or not they are objectively true (they’re not, in any useful sense), they’re not scientific statements, in the way that “the universe is expanding” is a scientific statement. If they were, we could imagine worlds in which they were not true at all (“killing babies is good,” “Justin Bieber is awesome”). Those would be absolutely conceivable worlds, just not the ones in which we happened to live. And the knowledge of which world we lived in would have to come from collecting some data, just as that’s how we learned the universe is expanding.
Sometimes the fact that science is not the only kind of respectable intellectual endeavor gets packaged as the statement that there are other “ways of knowing.” This is an unhelpful framing, since it could be true or false depending on unstated assumptions held by the speaker. Yes, mathematics is a different way of gaining true knowledge than science is, so at that minimal level there are different valid ways of knowing. But they are not merely different methods of getting at the truth, they are ways of getting at different kinds of truth. What makes science (broadly construed as empirical investigation) special is that it is the unique way of learning about the contingent truths that separate our actual world from all the other worlds we might have imagined. We’re not going to get there through meditation, revelation, or a priori philosophizing. Only by doing the hard work of developing theories and comparing them to data. The payoff is worth it.