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Science and Non-Science

Pamela Irvin Lazorko briefly introduces what demarks science from non-science.

The modern world has seen technological wonders multiply rapidly, made possible through an accumulation of scientific discoveries about the natural world applied in practical ways. Because of the successes of its applications, science has become humanity’s preferred means of collecting, evaluating, and organizing knowledge. This is possibly why the mantle of ‘scientific’ can confer a measure of certainty to any postulate or undertaking. Yet there remain conflicts, competing visions of truth, between those ideas fielded by the practitioners of science and, for example, its theological competitors. A question to be answered then is, What is science? – and by opposition, What is non-science?

Scientific Methods

In earlier eras, the human desire to explain natural phenomena linked what was observed with preconceived notions of the world taken from mythology, religion, and philosophy. Modern science developed as an alternative way to explain those phenomena, through systematically observing them, and testing ideas about them.

The scientific method proceeds from data collected by observing phenomena. Based on the observations, the inquirer crafts a hypothesis – an idea that hopes to explain the observations. Ideally, a scientific experiment to test a hypothesis seeks to control the variables thought to effect the experiment’s outcome, varying only a single element of the experimental situation at a time so that the effect of this single variable on the results can be measured or otherwise observed. Analysis of experimental results might then show the original hypothesis to be mistaken, in which case it is discarded, and an alternative hypothesis developed and tested. In the event that a hypothesis is not disproved by experimental results, it might form the basis for a theory explaining the phenomenon. Science also places importance on the publication of experiments, that they might be recreated by other researchers, demonstrating the consistency of claimed observations, and so that they may possibly further refine the process.

Early in the rift between scientists and (say) theologians, an empiricist view emerged in philosophy (cf, for example, John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689). On this view, only that which can be observed or measured in some way is a reliable source of truth. Religious authoritarianism, mysticism, and metaphysics were ruled out by this process. Indeed, evidence is essential in the scientific process. The scientist’s prime role is that of measuring and collecting data about the natural processes of interest. However, observations can be influenced by a bias towards the hypothesis the experimenter seeks to test, or by the paradigm the scientist is working within (see below).

Although in practice the ideal of having a purely objective or disinterested approach to the collection of data is rarely (if ever) achieved, science could not advance without some adherence to the empirical principle. Few examples exist of scientific theories not formed primarily from directly reacting to empirical data: the best-known is Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Einstein developed this theory from thought experiments and mathematics, although observations of natural phenomena later confirmed his concepts. Or as Einstein said, “Physics constitutes a logical system of thought which is in a state of evolution, whose basis cannot be distilled, as it were, from experience by an inductive method, but can only be arrived at by free invention. The justification of the system rests in the verification of the derived propositions by sense experiences.” (Albert Einstein, from Ideas and Opinions, 1954.)

To be scientific, the observations upon which a theory is based must be repeatable. Originally it was thought by philosophers of science that theories must be verifiable. This approach, known as verificationism, was inverted by Karl Popper in his book Conjectures and Refutations (1963), where he pointed out that no amount of observation agreeing with a hypothesis will ever prove that hypothesis, whereas a single contrary observation will disprove it. He therefore proposed that falsifiability provided the demarcation between scientific and non-scientific hypotheses. So, rather than by demonstrably being proven correct by empirical means, to be scientific, propositions should be capable of being disproved, either by observation or in theoretical principle. Generally, whether through verification or falsification, testability is essential to an idea being a scientific hypothesis.

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“Some of us are looking at the stars” – Oscar Wilde

One problem here is that when observed data seems to refute a theory, one may not know with certainty which aspect of the theory to reject. Observations may in fact support several competing theories, and may not of themselves be neutral arbitrators between opposing claims. Thomas Kuhn suggested in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) that scientific observations are made in an established theoretical context called a paradigm, and that for any given discipline an accepted paradigm of scientific thought suggests the course for continued experimentation. A paradigm is modified or abandoned when a replacement paradigm is found by the discipline’s community of scientists to be more useful, that is, it produces results which explain more phenomena. This also illustrates another characteristic of science – that its theories are tentative, and always subject to revision, correction or abandonment when incontrovertibly challenged by the data.

Scientific theories are often predictive. If a theory correctly models a natural phenomenon, then one should be able to use that model to make predictions about further related phenomena. Failure of the prediction might indicate that the underlying theoretical assumptions are incorrect, and the theory needs to be re-evaluated.

Non-Scientific Methods

‘Non-science’ means more than that which is antithetical to science. As sources of human knowledge, non-scientific approaches such as philosophy, theology, and art have usefully guided visions of the ‘why’ of our existence, our interactions with one another, or defined morality/ethics. By contrast, the label ‘pseudo-science’ encompasses attempts at claiming a mantle of truth by endeavors that, although to the layman might seem scientific, lack testability and the vigorous peer-review inherent in the scientific process. Astrology, for example, has a set of rules and underlying concepts which cannot be tested. The vagueness of its predictions avoid falsification precisely because they are ambiguous.

A common thread unifying non-scientific theories of the world is the reliance upon unseen (ie, unmeasurable by any known instrumentation) forces to form their explanations. There being no objective means by which to quantify or qualify these unknown variables, there can be no independent test of their validity, and there is also no consistency of experience among practitioners. Theological arguments such as the existence and nature of God are beyond the scope of evaluation by science because the subject transcends the natural world and is not testable by any empirical means. Science cannot develop means of either verifying or falsifying this religious construct.

Creation science attempts to use observation of the natural world to support its theorem that the world was designed by God. In ‘Intelligent Design is Empirically Testable and Makes Predictions’ (available from evolutionnews.org/2006/01), J. Richards and J. Witt, proponents of creation science, suggest the bacterial flagellum [a ‘tail’] as a clear example of design. The ‘irreducible complexity’ of this structure is offered as proof that it was designed. Yet ‘irreducible complexity’ is a value judgment without an objective basis, and so is not a scientific hypothesis. It is pseudo-science. (The potential for falsification they offer is in that evolutionary precursors to the flagellum have not been identified. Finding such an evolutionary path, they argue, would render their hypothesis false; thus to them their theory is scientific because it is empirically testable.)

Conclusions

The philosophy of science offers several points of demarcation of science from non-science. Science hopes to find truth by observation. Those things that cannot be measured cannot be evaluated by science, and are irrelevant to it. Scientific observations must exhibit consistency across repeated experiments. Where there is an instance of relevant data to which the theory cannot apply, it must be modified. Science is open to constant revision as new facts are discovered and integrated into the emerging picture of the world it seeks to formulate. By contrast, non-scientific theories tend to be more dogmatic. Rather than modify an outdated premise when it finds new observations, in a non-scientific theory the data may itself be ignored or denied.

Science has been the force behind humanity’s push forward. It defines new directions and possibilities and redefines old beliefs. It has helped cure diseases and saved millions from misery and hunger, yet it has also helped to develop weapons that have threatened humanity’s very existence. At its best, non-science roots us to traditions and helps us find ethical paths, yet it has also at times been a force against human progress. Mankind needs the best of both ways of thinking.

© Pamela Irvin Lazorko 2013

Pamela Irvin Lazorko is a nursing doctoral student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She received a MSN in Health Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006.

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