What is Science?

Any discussion on Theism, Science, Intelligent Design, or Secularism requires that everybody is speaking, as close as possible, the same language.

Regrettably many who advocate for Intelligent Design in science classes, or dismiss evolution as “just a theory” (like gravity and relativity—both theories, but “theory” doesn’t mean the same thing at all in science as in everyday life) simply doesn’t understand what we mean when we use the word “science”.

Science is two things: It’s a process by which knowledge (1)Knowledge must be in quotes here, because it’s important to note that you cannot know anything for certain (indeed, epistemologists have been trying to prove we exist since the time of Plato to no avail). All knowledge is always up for further revision and improvement. Thus knowledge is actually a refinement of our degrees of certainty. Accepting that it’s impossible to prove anything is what has allowed science the success it has, and allows it to remain flexible in the face of new data. It’s not about getting the answers as much as refining and improving on what we know. is acquired (also called “The Scientific Method”), and it’s the body of knowledge resulting from the application of this method. And while this process isn’t perfect, science is the single most successful enterprise in the history of the human race(2)For about 200,000 years mankind’s knowledge was limited to basic agriculture and architecture. Then about three hundred years ago we discovered and refined the scientific method, and human knowledge exploded at an exponential rate. We discovered antibiotics, sterilization, pasteurization, plastics, electricity, cut infant mortality by a factor of 100, landed a man on the moon, doubled the human lifespan and improved our quality of life at the same time. Any claim that science isn’t wildly effective is breathtakingly ignorant. .

All scientific hypothesis, theories, and statements must meet three requirements to be considered scientific. These conditions are not up for negotiation, there are no exceptions, this is the definition of scientific work and anything not following these standards is, a priori, unscientific.

  1. Testable: Something is considered scientific only if there is a means of testing it. An untestable hypothesis is not scientific.
  2. Falsifiable: A facet of the testability requirement, you must be able to imagine conditions under which your hypothesis could be proven false.
  3. Replicable: A claim is only scientific if the experimentation and observation which led to the claim is repeatable.

Note that there are many things which may well be true, but are still unscientific. It is a limitation of science, that even if a statement is true, if it doesn’t meet all three of those criteria, it is none-the-less unscientific(3)This is important to note, bur actually rarely a problem. If something is demonstrably true, then by nature of being demonstrable it probably meets the criteria. But you where the truth is indemonstrable (like IE), you must remember that science doesn’t care what’s true, it cares what you can prove.. Remember, however, that even with this limitation, the success of these requirements in the acquisition of knowledge is breathtaking.

The_Scientific_MethodOnce you have met these criteria, the process of engaging in science is as follows:

  1. Make an Observation: Observe something happening in the natural world.
  2. Make a Hypothesis: Make the best guess you can as to how or why it is happening.
  3. Develop Testable Predictions: Assuming your hypothesis is correct, what else would you expect to see?
  4. Test your Hypothesis: Make repeatable tests, both positive and dispositive, for your theory.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4, refining your hypothesis until enough data is gathered to accept or reject it.
  6. If it is accepted, you form a theory which is then merged with other scientific theories
  7. Publish to allow for peer review.

There are a few things to note. First, science is amoral; the consequences of any given research has no impact on the difficulty of that research (it’s not easier or harder to make nerve gas than the cure for cancer) . Further, these requirements are explicitly intended to mitigate biases on the part of the researcher (like wish thinking, confirmation bias, fairness bias, and attribution error)–science is the search for truth, not for fairness or for what we would like to be true. Lastly, none of these rules are arbitrary or capricious- we use them, not because someone declared that this was the way we were going to do it, but because after centuries of experimenting and trying to understand the universe, this method showed itself to be the most reliable means of acquiring knowledge.

With an understanding of what science is, it should be clear why Intelligent Design can not be taught in a science class as an alternate “theory” to evolution. First of all it’s not a theory (it’s a hypothesis), and has undergone none of the testing required to become a theory. Secondly it meets NONE of the requirements for a scientific claim: it is not falsifiable or testable (and therefore also not repeatable).

Now a number of people claim that that’s unfair, but again, that demonstrates ignorance about what science is and does. Science is amoral, it isn’t about what’s fair. It’s success, all of it, is predicated on the above methodology, which is explicitly designed to combat biases (including what any given person thinks is “fair”). Science can not now, nor has it ever been done, without strict, unwavering adherence to those inviolate principles.

That is science.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Knowledge must be in quotes here, because it’s important to note that you cannot know anything for certain (indeed, epistemologists have been trying to prove we exist since the time of Plato to no avail). All knowledge is always up for further revision and improvement. Thus knowledge is actually a refinement of our degrees of certainty. Accepting that it’s impossible to prove anything is what has allowed science the success it has, and allows it to remain flexible in the face of new data. It’s not about getting the answers as much as refining and improving on what we know.
2. For about 200,000 years mankind’s knowledge was limited to basic agriculture and architecture. Then about three hundred years ago we discovered and refined the scientific method, and human knowledge exploded at an exponential rate. We discovered antibiotics, sterilization, pasteurization, plastics, electricity, cut infant mortality by a factor of 100, landed a man on the moon, doubled the human lifespan and improved our quality of life at the same time. Any claim that science isn’t wildly effective is breathtakingly ignorant.
3. This is important to note, bur actually rarely a problem. If something is demonstrably true, then by nature of being demonstrable it probably meets the criteria. But you where the truth is indemonstrable (like IE), you must remember that science doesn’t care what’s true, it cares what you can prove.

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