04 Mar 2019 · 3 min read
What do we mean by science?
Most importantly, science consists of the following elements:
- Precisely observing and recording what is happening in the world around us.
- Formulating theories that seem able to explain these observations.
- Using these theories to make predictions about what will happen in the future, under specific conditions.
- Testing these predictions, and allowing others to test them as well.
- Based upon the results of these tests, either confirming, denying, or adjusting the formulated theories.
- Adding to and refining a body of reliable knowledge that can be shared with others.
A key element of science is the ability to make precise observations on both small and large scales. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has noted, science did not really take off until early in the 17th century, shortly after the inventions of both the microscope and the telescope.
The ability to record precise quantitative measurements, using fixed and shared units of measure, is critical to scientific pursuits as well. As Lord Kelvin noted, in 1883:
I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.
Peer networks are also an essential element of the scientific method, allowing proposed theories and results to be reviewed and tested by other qualified experts.
The power of scientific discoveries to improve the human condition has proven to be nothing short of remarkable.
As US President Abraham Lincoln remarked in 1858:
Beavers build houses; but they build them in nowise differently, or better, now than they did five thousand years ago…. Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship. These improvements he effects by Discoveries and Inventions.
A couple of decades earlier, journalist Alexis de Tocqueville noted:
From the time when the exercise of the intellect became a source of strength and of wealth, we see that every addition to science, every fresh truth and every new idea became a germ of power placed within the reach of the people.
Of course the application of scientific discoveries can also be a double-edged sword, with negative consequences as well as positive ones. Innovations in science and technology can prove disruptive to society, making old skills obsolete faster than workers can be retrained. They can also have unintended side effects, especially on our environment and on our ecological systems. And they have allowed our human population size to grow astronomically, perhaps beyond any point at which it can be reasonably sustained.
However, broader understanding and application of scientific principles may also provide the answer to many of these problems, as E. O. Wilson suggested in 2005:
The toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.
As is consistent with an integral approach, the Practical Utopian does not view science as the only way to understand the world, and does not view science’s more practical partner, engineering, as the only way to improve the human condition.
But we do recognize their importance.