Tom Jonard's What Is Science? Page

The on-going debate over teaching Evolution in public schools has proven to be a touchstone for understanding science.  Science writer David Lore writing the Columbus Dispatch (March 17, 2002, page 5G) observes that this is what this issue is really all about.  Describing a public forum held on the topic sponsored by the State Board of Education he notes, "Much of the debate, however, focused not on the biological evidence for each point of view but rather on whether Intelligent Design could be regarded as science".  In order to be able to answer this you must basically be able to answer the question, What is science?

Experiment and Review

One common answer to this question is, science is what scientists do.  Since you can find acceptance of this premise on both sides of the Evolution debate this clearly needs some clarification.  For instance this is not equivalent to saying that science is what any lone scientist does.  Yet some proponents of creationism say just this -- they are scientists who believe in creationism therefore creationism must be compatible with science.  But this turns science on its head for it misses one key characteristic of science as a process.

Ask scientists what they do and they will say they gather evidence, develop hypotheses based on that evidence, propose experiments based on the hypotheses and then see if the experiments confirm or deny the hypotheses.  In addition their work is subject to some sort of peer review which in our times has come to mean getting reviewed and published by a journal accepted by other scientists as a standard.  But peer review can and does have a broader meaning -- that one scientist's results must be replicable by another.  In this way science is democratic in the sense that its results are generally accessible to all.

This is what we mean when we say that science is what scientists do, but not necessarily what one scientist does.  One (or even a small group) of scientists can't get away with claiming just any old thing and do it with authority.  That capacity belongs to the larger of community of science which gets to review every claim.  This is both a strength and a weakness.

Peer review is a stumbling block that creationism and most other fringe science typically trips over.  And proponents of such views typically see this as unfair.  It may appear to the non-scientist that peer rejection is a purely social activity; that it is a way to keep outsiders out and preserve science for like-minded thinkers.  Creationists have on occasion not been reluctant to say this themselves.  But just saying it does not make it so any more than do appearances.

As David Lore says, "Those findings that hold up over time to rigorous debate and criticism are science.  Those that don't are history." (loc. cit.)

Naturalism and Materialism

Science also is characteristically naturalistic or materialistic.  (These two categories are not strictly equivalent but I think everything that can be said of one is also true of the other so no precision is lost if we discuss them together.)  By this I mean that science seeks to explain the natural or material world and it seeks to do so in terms solely of natural or material causes.  Both scientists and creationists will agree on this.  Where they differ is in whether this is a good or bad thing.  Most scientists believe this is the way things should be in science.

Proponents of creationism and some other fringe science (such as Parapsychology) believe on the other hand that there should be room for other, non-natural and non-material explanations.  And they would not mind extending science to include them too.  This is the crux of the debate on teaching creationism in the classroom -- everybody agrees that it would mean redefining science, but not all agree that that this is a good thing or that school boards are right to do this.

Most scientists point out that allowing super-natural or immaterial explanations into science would do nothing for understanding.  These are  just ad hoc explanations that cut short the process of discovery and the expansion of knowledge.  If you say that any phenomenon is what it is because it was designed that way, then there is nothing else to say.  This viewpoint admits no further investigation or explanation.  It would shorten the science cirriculum severely.  It is analogous to your mother or father saying, "Because I said so!".  It is not a way of thinking but a way to stop thinking.


Another characteristic of science is that it is empirical as opposed to deductive.  Few people realize it but in the 17th century in the advent of scientific empiricism there was debate about its validity.  Science assumes empiricism is valid but that was not always the case as we can learn from the history of philosophy.  The central question with regard to empiricism is whether repeated observation of events (such as the sun rising) allows one to predict future events (the sun will rise tomorrow).  This is as opposed to deduction where if a = b and b = c then we can easily conclude that a = c.

Creationism accepts that the path to knowledge is more deductive in nature -- proceeding from assumed truths to deductions about the way things are.  In Creationism the assumption of creation precedes any exploration of the real world.  Rather than asking, "How could this be?" creationists are content to give up early and proclaim that things are so complex they obviously support the assumption that they are created.  In this and other areas of fringe science a sort of gnosticism is at work -- sympathetic investigators "know" the phenomena are real and work hard to get (pseudo) experimental confirmation.

Sometimes empiricism is justified on the basis of underlying mechanism, i.e., empirical explanation works because it discovers and exposes the underlying mechanism of why one thing follows another.  This is the standard assumption of classical physics.  Even if the mechanism can only be represented by a mathematical model nevertheless it was assumed that some "under the covers" type of action is represented in an empirical explanation.  This does not work in post classical physics i.e., Quantum Mechanics.

Another possibility is that empiricism is a valid assumption because it allows us to predict consequences of our actions and the actions of others.  It allows us to recognize both threat and safety in the real world and this allows us to survive.  If we were not able to predict threat and safety we would perish.  And those who did not have already done so.  Those who are left are those who can and do perform this empirical analysis of the world.

In short empiricism is a valid assumption because evolution is true.  The validity of empiricism is built into our nature and arises out of the nature of the world in which we live.  This world is characterized by survival of the fittest.  We may have grown out of the need to rely on our survival capabilities on a daily basis but we are left with the sense that it is an empirical approach to the world that works best.

Openness and Skepticism

In A Demon-Haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark (Random House, New York, 1996) Carl Sagan in a chapter wonderfully titled, "The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder" writes:

" the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes -- an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new.  The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track...

"If you're only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you.  You never learn anything...major discoveries at the boundaries of science are rare...If you're too resolutely and uncompromisingly skeptical you're going to miss (or resent) the transforming discoveries in science and either way you will be obstructing understanding and progress.  Mere skepticism is not enough.

"At the same time, science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way to winnow the wheat from the chaff is by critical experiment and analysis...  Uncritically accepting every proffered notion, idea and hypothesis is tantamount to knowing nothing...

"The judicious mix of these two modes of thought is central to the success of science.  Good scientists do both."

(pp. 304 & 305)

Michael Shermer writing in the May, 2002, Scientific American offers another perspective on this dynamic tension in science by interchangeably using "orthodoxy" and "tradition" for scientific skepticism and "heresy" and "change" for scientific openness or credulity.  Taking Sagan's description of scientific thought one might say that it is the art of striking a balance between orthodoxy and heresy and between tradition and change.  Typically fringe science sees itself as all creativity and openness opposed by scientific orthodoxy and closedness.  This is neither a true description of science or of the anti-science that espouses it.

Orthodoxy and heresy are of course terms we are more familiar with in a religious context.  While between creationism and science only one side is supposedly religious there is a sense in which either can be pseudo-religious (i.e., dogmatic) about their respective positions.  Tradition and change are concepts that only seem to be less meaning loaded.  In fact some people are nervous in the presence of tradition of any form and others just as nervous in the presence of change.  And if you perceive that either is in opposition to ideas you champion you are not likely to think it a good thing.

This seems to me where human nature encounters scientific ideals.  It is a nexus that we have to understand before we can choose our path out of it.  And we have to have a vision of what that path shall be.  Science provides a model of balance that many see as the best way to go.


Some scientists, some skeptics and some scientifically inclined laymen maintain that not only is the natural, material and empirical world the proper subject of science -- it is in fact the only thing there is.  Outside of this there is nothing and all of reality is reducible to this alone.  This extreme view is sometimes hostile to and derisive of any other viewpoint.  I will venture to say that this view of the nature of reality is not the only possibility and indeed not necessarily a part of science.

It is possible without being either dishonest or insane to believe that the proper subject of science is indeed physical reality and that this physical reality is natural, material and empirical and at the same time not believe this precludes the existence of any metaphysical reality.  Science strictly speaking cannot say anything either pro or con about the possibility of metaphysics.  It simply is not in the self defined domain of science.  Any interpretation of science that ignores this barrier is simply a personal viewpoint and not really a part of science at all.

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Created March 24, 2002, 
© 2002, Thomas A. Jonard