Science broadly construed

December 13, 2019 • 8:30 am

Last night I found this quote in one of my favorite popular science books, in which Carl Sagan tells us what he construes as science. It jibes nicely with my conception of “science broadly construed” that I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. And when I’ve argued that car mechanics practice science when diagnosing a problem, or that plumbers practice science when locating the source of a leak, I’ve angered those philosophers who busy themselves with the “demarcation problem”: what is science and what is not science. While philosophers tie themselves into knots about this semantic issue (I guess they have nothing better to do), some of them simply know that plumbing and auto mechanics aren’t science. So to Massimo Pigliucci and all those philosophical pecksniffs who can’t stand the idea of plumbers doing science, I offer this quote as evidence that you’ll have to go after not just me, but Sagan as well. In fact, Sagan’s construal of science is even wider than mine.

One of the reasons for its success is is that science has a built-in, error correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, p. 27

54 thoughts on “Science broadly construed

  1. I like Sagan’s definition but would like to point out that he has two different criteria, being self-criticism and testing against the outside world.

    My interpretation is that auto mechanics and plumbers can satisfy the second, but not necessarily the first criterium.

  2. “I’ve argued that car mechanics practice science when diagnosing a problem,…”

    I tell an anecdote to my students when discussing this topic: I read a paper localizing a protein in the cell using GFP. Later that day I took my old Toyota across the street to have a mechanic solve my oil leak problem. He injected a fluorescent dye into the engine to figure out where the leak was…. and putting a bell around a cows neck when you live in the mountains is the same logic as using a GFP tag.

    1. In my country all cows have a bell around their neck, even if they are kept in an enclosure in the lowland (now that most cows do not have horns, the bell is the identification character of the species). Tradition wins over rationality.

  3. Sagan mentions, as Professor Coyne often has, the self-correcting nature of science. Of course, it is an absolute necessity for science to correct its findings and conclusions as new evidence becomes available. Yet, this is why many people are skeptical about science. They wonder if the latest discovery can be trusted. Will it be reversed a decade from now? I doubt that many people will be upset if a new theory supplants the current one on such issues, for example, as the nature of dark matter. But, they get upset if new research upends scientific conclusions about matters that affect their everyday lives. Today a certain drug is touted to perform near miracles; tomorrow it may turn out that it is harmful. It is because scientific conclusions are tentative that a sizeable number of people don’t trust science.

    On the other hand, religion is not self-correcting. Its dogma is unchanging despite lack of evidence to support it. For many people, its certainty is what makes it appealing. Religion provides psychological solace because people delude themselves into believing that it is “true.” Science, on the other hand, goes where the available evidence takes it. This necessarily creates uncertainty. Most people crave certainty and religion provides it. Science does not provide it and this is why the “war” between science and religion will never be concluded.

    1. All good. The vocally religious will often flog those point, in whatever way is convenient for them to arrive at whatever conclusion they want at the time. If they want to criticize science because it makes claims that run counter to their core beliefs, they will hold up the uncertainty of science and say that therefore scientists cannot be trusted. But if they want to claim that their own flawed reasoning is somehow scientific, then immediately they will use the uncertainty of science to claim a space for themselves at the scientific table.

    2. You do highlight a real issue with the acceptance of science. To my mind there are two significant contributing factors. First is the often misleading reporting and commentary in much of the media, which feeds misunderstanding. Sometimes it is intentional, some times it is not and some times it’s because the reporters and their editors just can’t be arsed to get it right. The second is that the general public has a very poor understanding of what science actually is, how it is done and what its findings mean. The second factor is tied to the first but not entirely. We do not live in a culture that values science, except in so far as it provides us with our quality (and way) of life today.

      It is the nature of science that it is a provisional way of understanding the world. That’s a feature, not a bug, but most people simply don’t understand this. We don’t do enough to teach people what science IS.

    3. I would add to your comment that religions only claim to be timeless and inerrant — in fact, like the flu virus, they are continuously evolving. Take, for example, the Evangelical Christian position on abortion — fifty years ago they were pro-choice. Back then, the “moral leadership” they offered was on a different issue entirely, their rock-solid, scripturally-supported opposition to school integration. But when that became bad for business, they held their noses and allied with Catholics to oppose reproductive freedom instead. Racists are often also sexists, it seems. It was a winning political strategy.

      Didn’t the faithful notice the switch? It just goes to show that many religious people don’t even know the tenets of their own faith; or if they do know them, they manage to overlook moral weakness and outright falsehood. They’ll put up with a lot of cognitive dissonance as long as they can “belong”.

    4. But religious dogma does change.

      When a religious “fact” is show to absolutely, positively NOT a fact, the dogma changes from a ‘fact” to a “metaphor”

    5. “On the other hand, religion is not self-correcting. Its dogma is unchanging despite lack of evidence to support it.”

      Using only Christianity as an example, tenets and so-called dogma have changed from the very beginning of the religion into the present day. It started off as an aspect of Jewish religion and modified pretty much everywhere it went depending on who was doing the proselytizing and how the messages were interpreted. Kinda like playing “telephone”.
      I’m sure that other religions have modified similarly in the past as well as the present as christianity has and does.

  4. The easiest way for someone who doubts this idea is to simply discuss plumbing problems with your plumber, car problems with your mechanic (or listen to Car Talk), computer problems with your IT geek, even your health problems with your doctor. There’s not a big claim here – it’s pretty reasonable.

    1. …. but I suppose there still is a problem of science as *discovering* new truths. The examples I have tend to be setting things back to their original configuration.

    2. Many is the time when I stood in awe of the plumber or electrician that is called to our house. I have a PhD in A Subject Of No Practical Value. Although I do have considerable experience in plumbing, electrical wiring, and carpentry, if I need something done that is well beyond my abilities I simply hire a skilled technician and & just step back to watch them dive into it.

      The big check I write afterwards generally seems worth it.

      1. On top of everything else, those Magliozzi brothers, Tom and Ray, both had degrees from MIT.

        But don’t drive like either one of ’em’s brother. 🙂

  5. My dad once told me that the difference between a carpenter and a handy man is, the carpenter can fix his mistakes.

    Science as we are told is a method always seeking to know and discover and to either debunk or reinforce what we know. The method is available to everyone if they choose. The plumber and the mechanic use the method to find and discover what and where. They remember how the problem is solved so it can be used again. The next vehicle that comes through the door might look like the same but the good mechanic does not assume until he follows the method.

    1. The best handyman I ever hired had a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After losing his job during the Great Recession, he found other ways to earn a living. His education and experience were useful in knowing the right way to slap two boards together.

  6. I am not familiar with how the pecksniffs object to the broadly construed view of what science is. I could see where some individuals would prefer to see science as some sort of pure investigation into ‘the nature of things’. Exploring areas like hydrodynamics and the chemistry behind the oxidation of metals are areas of scientific exploration since they are done without an immediate practical problem in mind. But when one investigates where the leak is in our water pipes, then (to them) one is merely doing plumbing.

    On balance, I do come down on the side that science is best viewed in the broader way. The plumber will do the procedures of science, almost instinctively, because on some occasions they will develop and test hypotheses and even do controlled experiments.

    The short-hand of this is that science is “organized common sense”.

      1. No

        If some one has discovered something, they or their colleagues are professional scientists (in my view).

        Remember the thread on how there were a bunch of new politicians who were claimed to be scientists?

  7. But science isn’t in every occupation, though It might help in some cases. I think of stocking shelves – or running a cash register/ checkout, taxi driving – is science there? Perhaps a bit – this will get tiresome at some point. Is a musician a scientist? Is a mathematician a scientist? A writer? At first, no – but then, I’m not sure.

    Where does “broadly construed” taper out to “barely at all”?

    1. All science.

      Da Vinci recognized certain oil paints worked better than others.

      Michael Phelps, along with his coach, recognized training patterns that reinforced never before seen improvements in endurance.

      As much as I hate to admit the banality of things like Uber and Facebook; insights that predict economic benefit, in this case, with measurable value, are also science. So yes, some taxi cab drivers employ science, generally, in a way, that gives them a market advantage over their competitors. Others still attempt to get a market advantage, but they fail, and that is still science.

      I bet most tasks can be mapped to minimization problems. Sort of like all cash register persons are in a thermal bath and those that have distinguishing characteristics as a register have broken some kind of symmetry.

    2. “Where does “broadly construed” taper out to “barely at all”?”

      Right after death for most of us.

  8. When my ancestor lived in a cave with her kids thousands of years ago and she noted that rain water came down the canyon and might cause her kids do drown she spent a few weeks creating a small dam with rocks to mitigate the flow and protect her family’s walking paths. That’s science.

    Science can be many things. One important criteria is that it involves connecting actions to observations that may or may not lead to something that changes or predicts the behavior of physical phenomena.

    My cats do science everyday. They just don’t have language to codify and build upon that knowledge in an exponential fashion like humans.

    1. The other day, a zoo curator on a radio program described an orangutan who did a sort of science. The orang made use of a bent wire (a tool! to slip the doorlatch in order to escape from his enclosure. Moreover, he hid the tool from the zoo personnel, so as to be able to leave the enclosure and explore the zoo day after day. It took them several days to discover how this primate escape artist was operating. If orangs had a journal like Nature, he could have communicated his technical findings to the rest of his community.

  9. “when we confuse hopes and facts”

    Exactly. When I think about the religious people I know, this seems to be the key failure of their thinking. They can be perfectly rational when diagnosing a problem with their car, or figuring out which doctor to see, but when it comes to religion, they have hopes that override their logic.

  10. Interesting comments. I like our host’s and Dr Sagan’s views on science, broadly construed. It reminds me of a question a teacher once asked us to consider; “Was mathematics invented or was it discovered”?

    I have considered that question over the years and I still don’t know where I stand. But I do think that science is something we humans invented. We all do it in some form or another with most people simply using the basic tools of science in abstract ways. The people in lab coats are simply doing more reified versions of what plumbers and carpenters do. And which all of us are capable of, to some degree or another – because we humans invented science.

    my $0.02.

  11. In Greek, you had techne (art or craftmanship), and episteme (knowledge, science).

    In Latin, you had scientia, which from the Greeks entailed “necessary truths” or metaphysics, that which “must be the case” about the world (e.g. the equivalence of episteme). Thus, for Aquinas, theology is the queen of the sciences because it is the fount of “necessary truths” about the universe (such as the five ways). But the understanding of “science” in Aquinas’s day was not the equivalent to science as it developed in modern Europe.

    With the rise of Newton, Descartes, Roger Bacon, and 16th century rationalism, you have a new, empirical, understanding of science, specifically science becomes universal principles or laws of nature derived from empirical evidence, particularly involving control groups and experimental groups. Thus, a certain set of procedures leading to a certain kind of substantive knowledge (although, in actuality, the work product of the social sciences cannot be understood in this fashion).

    Underlying these distinctions from ancient times is the fact that techne was something for slaves or serfs or commoners, and science was the domain of gentlemen. Techne was practical, science was theoretical. Techne required vocational training, science required a gentleman’s training in the liberal arts.

    Plumbing is techne. I note that there are not a lot of gentlemen plumbers. Nuclear physics is science. While I am sure that some plumbers are physicists, physicists are elites who go though an arduous training in highly selective elite institutions. To equate them makes little sense, except if you are trying to make everything useful reducible to science and everything not useful religion.

    But I differ here as well. Rhetoric is techne, we all agree, and religion and theology are useful in crafting rhetoric. Likewise, the conceptual apparatus of political theory is basically secularized concepts that originated in theology. Where do you suppose 18th century liberals got the idea of 3 branches of government but one government? Scratch a political structure and you will find a theology. Scratch a theory of mind and you will find political structure (who are the brains and who are the bodies that need to be told what to do).

    If you want to fight a war (a practical problem), the practical solution is to invoke some kind of purity argument that the enemy is unclean or impure (racist or sexist in today’s frame, Catholic or Protestant in the 16th Century), and call on the soldiers to purge the impurity in a holy war. I don’t see this going away even if the Abrahamic faiths die off, and if its not religion, its the next closet thing. Rulers will always seek wars, and will always need to whip up subjects to support and fight those wars.

    1. I beg to differ. What we call Science today emerged precisely from the combination of the theoretical pursuits of “gentlemen” with the hands-on work you describe as techne. Recall that the founder of what we today call Physics combined a gentleman’s inquiry into abstract questions with an enthusiasm for hanging out with and learning from craftsmen: he was not above grinding his own lenses for his improved telescope.

      1. De Re Metallica, ca. 1556 – possibly the founding textbook of chemistry was driven into being by practical “real-world” interests (i.e. money, if you will) in mining.

        1. It was addressed to the Electors of Saxony, his patrons, not his co-workers. Chapter 1 is “Arguments for or against this Art?” as translated by Wikipedia, and “art” is, of course, techne.

          I have no problem with engineering being applied science, and techne being applied engineering, and the two resting on scientific inquiry broadly construed, but plumbing is no more physics than being a dishwasher in a steakhouse makes you a Parisian chef.

          1. Alright, but

            “plumbing is no more physics than being a dishwasher in a steakhouse makes you a Parisian chef.”

            … simply doesn’t work to illustrate any point.

            Plumbers, for one, are interested in completing their task correctly. There’s only one way it can be correct, or they get called back.

            The dishwasher vs. chef – I mean, I don’t even know where to start with those.

            1. Well, to start, a dishwasher and a chef have different educations, they have different roles in production, they have different status, and they have different types and degrees of knowledge.

              No one is going to view what a dishwasher does as being a mini-Chef or something. Likewise, no one is going to mistake the plumber for a professor with a specialty in non-linear fluid dynamics.

              1. Dishwashers in any facility- restaurants, mess halls, hospitals, etc. are doing dishwashing- not cooking.

  12. I think this definition of “science broadly construed” makes perfect sense, philosophical Pecksniffs notwithstanding. I have more of a problem when “religion” is “broadly construed” as any belief in spiritual reality rather than as a social-cultural system of beliefs and practices. For one thing, It’s only when the former gets institutionalized into the latter–when trees are converted to pulpits, so to speak==that the many complaints about “religion” are justified. Just my two cents.

  13. IMO, the best demarcation criterion is the *goal* of the inquiry:

    1) Truth?
    2) Efficiency, safety, etc.?

    1) Science (basic or applied)
    2) Technology

    If the goal is not inquiry, but implementing 2), then one is doing “technics”, i.e., working as a technician. Note that this makes working physicians closer to auto repair folks than to biologists – only class prejudice (in either direction) would find that unfortunate.

    And one person can be do all four of these categories at some time or other.

  14. I like how Jacques Monod put it in “Chance and Necessity” (a book you should read if you haven’t already: Science and mythology both begin by imagining a possible world. Science, however, then confronts that imagined world with reality.

  15. Plumbing as a system, like science, and because of science innovations, has always moved forward. Better tools, marterials, practices, new supply of brains. Using and advancing current knowledge for progress.

  16. How about defining science as describing reality accurately, and using that information to solve problems incorporating the best evidenced-based practices. Plumbers, etc., could then be called scientists because that’s what they do.

    1. “Plumbers, etc., could then be called scientists ”

      I think a distinction has to be made because the term is going to lose meaning if everyone is a scientist. Professional scientist, perhaps not plumbers. And likewise, I use mathematics but I’m neither a mathematician nor a professional mathematician.

      I think there’s a failure to distinguish a strong claim of what constitutes a scientist, and simple acknowledgment that science is used in numerous ostensibly non-scientific endeavors.

      1. Plumbers are (or could be) *technicians*, i.e. those who implement technologies. Consequently (see above) they have a scientific pedigree and hence can make of scientific method, but for different goals.

    2. … and the Sagan quote includes “ … we are doing science.”

      *Doing* science – not necessarily earning the label of “scientist”. I don’t even think plumbers would like the idea of claiming they are scientists.

  17. My favorite line from the Sagan quote: When we confuse hopes and facts. But some scientific endeavors do confuse the two. For instance when a pharmacology company says “let’s conduct this research study that’ll show how well our drug works.” Hopes are even worse when they’re self-serving hopes.

  18. Science and technical fields clearly have a lot in common. If a definition of science appeared to offer a precise and sharp boundary between science and technology, that would be a dead giveaway that it was wrong.

  19. It seems to me that in the broadest context, science basically amounts to the balance between feedback and feedforward mechanisms. After a given action is performed (or, in the case of observation, no action is required other than observing), a response that is almost entirely based on collecting feedback would be labeled science, while the opposite – a feedforward based response – would be labeled faith. In that sense science is a natural human process as we all engage in this type of interacting with the world from birth onwards.

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