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There's No Grand Unity Called "Science"

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Editor's note: We are delighted to welcome Dr. Westfall as a new contributor. He is an emeritus professor in the Computer Information Systems Department at California Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Doug Axe's piece at Evolution News the other day was very good ("Public Opinion Is the Ultimate Peer Review"), but it implicitly supports the misconception that science is one big thing. That idea is the primary basis for all pejorative propaganda attacking dissenters as being "anti-science."

It is false to say that there is one single activity to be identified as "Science." In truth, there are only individual fields of study, some of which deserve being called sciences, while others arguably do not. They don't all fit into one overarching category because the methodologies and criteria for what count as valid findings vary so greatly among them. (A cynic might suggest that in contrast to people who do research in psychology, physicists function in a different and not very parallel universe.)

The panorama can be taxonomized as follows. First, divide the fields of study into: (A) the natural or physical sciences, and (B) the social sciences. Then divide the natural sciences, separating (A1) those concerned with homogeneous entities and deterministic (at least in the aggregate) relationships, from (A2) the ones that deal with chaotic processes (like climatology).

Most of the progress in knowledge and technology comes from the (A1) category. Although researchers in the other categories would like you to think they are making comparable contributions to society, they are not.

In the public eye, most of the credibility of "Science" comes from tangible products resulting from the findings of computer science, physics, and chemistry -- for example, computers, jumbo jets, medical technologies such as MRI scanners, etc. Very few question the accomplishments of these kinds of sciences. But that doesn't mean that other sciences produce comparably valid results.

You can take this even further. Throughout history much of progress initially came from the tinkerers, inventors, and engineers. The relevant sciences were discovered or substantially elaborated after the fact to understand why the things they created actually worked. The Romans built great aqueducts two thousand years ago and the church produced grand cathedrals in the Middle Ages before materials science was developed. "The era of the steam engine ... was well into its second century before a fully formed science of thermodynamics had been developed." (See "Engineering Is Not Science.")

And unlike science, replication is not an issue in engineering. People may be able to get away with "scientific findings" that can't be reproduced, but not with bridges that collapse.

The climate change alarmists, for one, seem to think that just calling their opponents anti-science should be more than enough to shut them up, or at least convince others to ignore evidence contrary to their catastrophic warming narrative. However there is an implicit assumption in the "anti-science" epithet: that all sciences produce comparably reliable results. Say, that the science of climatology can be trusted as much as the science of aeronautics.

Here are a couple of thought-provoking questions to ask anyone who accuses others of being anti-science: Would you book a flight on an airplane that was as unreliable as weather forecasts more than ten days in advance? Or whose landings were as inconsistent as the frequently changing dietary recommendations from nutritional research?

No, there is no grand unity called "Science." It might clarify the public debate on these topics if we could help people understand this important point.

Photo credit: Sol Goldberg, via Wikicommons.