Defining Science

Over at Built on Facts, Matt Springer is easing his way back into blogging by asking “What is Science?”. He offers a simple one-sentence definition:

Science is the testing of ideas.

That’s all. Every technicality I can think of is avoided so long as the person doing the science is honest. Create fair and objective tests, try not to fool yourself or anyone else, don’t be wedded to your hypothesis, basic things like that. Be dishonest and I doubt there’s a definition in the world that some sufficiently clever pseudoscientist can’t wriggle out of. Test your ideas and be honest about it. That’s about it.

Shockingly, he immediately gets a bunch of comments pointing out some loophole or another that would allow some form of pseudo-science to squeak through. Nobody ever could’ve predicted that.

The problem here is that there are really two ways to come at the question of defining science, and Matt’s simple definition leans strongly toward one of them. Thinking about the different approaches, it also occurs to me that there’s some resonance between what’s going on here, an endless debate in science fiction circles, and the construction of Internet communities.

First things first, though: the problem Matt’s running up against is that there are two ways to come at the question of what science is, in that different people have different goals in mind when they ask the question. One group is trying to define science so as to exclude things that they find objectionable. The other is trying to define the common elements of science, so as to include all the things that they like.

Matt’s definition leans strongly toward the latter. He’s trying to find a way to bring theoretical, experimental, and observational sciences all together under a single definitional umbrella. He doesn’t phrase it that way, but if you look at what he says, particularly that last paragraph, it seems clear that that’s the spirit of the definition. He wants to bring together all of the different scientific approaches that work, and basically celebrate their effectiveness.

The people objecting to his definition are coming at the question with the other goal in mind: they’re interested in defining science not so much to celebrate to good as to cast out the bad. You can see it in the tone of most of the comments: they’re primarily interested in finding and eliminating arguments that quacks, astrologers, or cdesign proponentists could use to fit in under Matt’s definition of science.

This reminds me a lot of the endless arguments in science fiction fandom about where to draw the line between “science fiction” and “fantasy.” These rage without end in various corners of the Internet, and inevitably devolve into detailed arguing about fiddly edge cases– are Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books fantasy because they have telepathic dragons, or science fiction because the dragons are supposed to be genetically engineered by space travelers? Is Star Wars science fiction because they have space ships and laser guns, or fantasy because of the wibbling about the Force? And so on.

There’s a comment by somebody famous in the field, who I will confidently assert to be Ursula LeGuin, knowing that Jonathan Vos Post will correct me within nanoseconds if I’m wrong, pointing out what’s wrong, which is really the same as the difference between the inclusive and exclusive definitions of science. The problem with arguing about where to draw the line between science fiction and fantasy is that you end up spending all your time arguing about a handful of books way out in the borderlands, and stop thinking about the vast bulk of the individual categories. In many ways, it’s more productive and illuminating not to argue about the boundary cases, but to think about the common elements shared by the vastly larger number of works in the center of each of the fields.

I think there’s something to be said for that in terms of defining science as well. When I think about the question I tend to use a more operational formulation. My definition of science is a process with four steps: 1) identify an interesting phenomenon in the world, 2) come up with a model of why that thing might be that way, 3) test your model through observation or experiment, and 4) tell everyone you know the results. It’s essentially the same thing Matt’s saying, only with numbered steps (perhaps not surprising, as we’re both physicists). My interest in defining science lies primarily in trying to find the elements that make it the most effective means of producing knowledge ever devised, and the cornerstone of modern civilization

Other people come at this from a much different angle. Their interest is not so much in figuring out what works, but in sweeping away what doesn’t work. There tends to be a political flavor to most of these definitions, as the impulse to go in this direction often comes from specific grievances with various harmful and unscientific approaches and world views. These end up adding a lot more detail to the definition, trying to close off gaps in the boundary through which non-science might approach science, and thus gain some undeserved credibility.

In the end, I think we do need both approaches, because there are people out there who try to claim the status of “science” in bad faith. We need ways to stop them from both abusing that status to harm others, and from reflecting poorly on the mass of people who do good science.

Whenever I watch these arguments, though, I end up being reminded of one of the many very smart things Teresa Nielsen Hayden has said about the moderation of Internet communities (which she does professionally for Boing Boing, and recreationally for Making Light). Paraphrasing a bit, she said that the rules for moderation should be as simple as possible, because the more complicated you make them, the more the system starts to look like a game. And when the system looks like a game, people will try to play it like one, and you’ll spend all your time adding exceptions and closing loopholes.

The arguments that spring up in Matt’s comments have some of the same flavor to me. The whole business of adding qualifiers and finding exceptions, and adding qualifiers to the qualifiers to close out the exceptions, and so ad infinitum just feels like people gaming an increasingly arbitrary system of rules that become more and more divorced from what’s really important. And that way lies madness.

Which, I guess, is why I’m neither a philosopher nor a lawyer.