|Towards a definition of science|
Posted September 2006 ( draft)
Updated with letter to Ministry Nov 2006
*Science enables us to reflect reality and survive as a species.
*Science is knowledge framed in philosophy ( a love of wisdom).
*Science cannot exist in the absence of compassion, collegiality, trust and reflection.
*Knowledge without science is high risk expertise.
*The 2006 draft New Zealand national education curriculum lacks science and increases the risk of war and misery.
Origins of science symbol:
<Old French <Latin scientia<sciens,entis,present participle of scire know
Sample Web definitions
The Use of Mind to Discover Generalized Laws http://www.buckminster.info/Glossary/Glossary-S.htm
study of the nature and behaviour of the physical universe in order to
provide understanding and to develop a description of the basic
principles and mechanisms.
knowledge derived through experimentation, observation, and study. Also,
the methodology used to acquire this knowledge.
refers to either:* the scientific method – a process for evaluating
empirical knowledge; or* the organized body of knowledge gained by this
The Buckminster Fuller definition provides additional meaning by providing a general purpose for both the process and the knowledge.
I draw from this a definition of science that it is the active search for the state in which we most fully reflect the reality of our existence. Then we can most fully appreciate the trace balances that sustain us and enjoy the maximum sense of harmony.
The context of this definition is one in which we are mortal forms and part of the universal flux of change. This means the nature of the body of scientific knowledge constantly changes too and is aways subject to revision (falsification). Hence the knowledge which is science cannot be fully defined.
The scientific process changes with the flux of scientific knowledge. Our powers of experimentation are constantly transformed. An example is the advent of quantum physics. In this case, the meaning of “empirical” is transformed as we experience in greater depth the potential of the relationships between the observer and the observed. Hence the process which is science cannot be fully defined.
In order to experience the optimal meaning of science, it is perhaps helpful to also define it in terms of what our objectives are and the requisites for science to occur.
At its most basic level, I suggest the objectives of science are to promote the development of the process and knowledge that enables our species to survive. I believe the greatest meaning is experienced occurs when the act of survival is accompanied by a sense of harmony and awe, Science enables this state.
The following is a list of requisites for science to occur. Essentially they form the moral scafolding that enables knowledge to become adaptive for our species. We are optimally adapted when we most fully mirror the reality of the balances of the universe that sustain us. The role of these capacities is spelled out further later on.
To the degree that any of these capacities do not exist, science does not exist. We fail to mirror reality.
On mirroring reality.
The recent discovery (1996) of the existence and the scale of mirror neurons in humans indicates the importance of being able to reflect the changing balances of our environment accurately. To quote from the Scientific American (Vol 17 No May 2006)
“These (mirror neurons are scattered throughout key parts of our brain – the premotor cortex and centres for language, empathy and pain – and fire not only as we perform a certain action but also when we watch someone else perform the action….at its most basic, this finding means we mentally rehearse or imitate every action we witness….”
such as Ramachandran, believe mirror neurons crucial in the development
of social skills, social networks and knowledge infrastructure we call
culture – from tool use to reveling in Shakespeare, from collaborative
hunting to hip hop… paving the way for accelerating advances in
understanding, communication and learning. For the first time,
information could be spread, built on and modified to create the
intellectual and social dynamic of culture..”
The article has this intriguing suggestion:
“The archaeological record suggests that this “great leap forward” –the beginning of human culture – began about 50,000 years ago. But human brains underwent no growth spurt then; indeed they have been roughly their present size for about 200,000 years. So what has changed? Ramachandran and other speculate that the change was a genetic adaptation that gave key neurons the mirroring capacity they now hold…”
In other words our civilisation depends on our individual and group capacity
to reflect our changing world accurately. Indeed many people considered
sages have suggested the act of reflection is greatest source of joy and
vitality. It is interesting to note that
word mirror comes from the mirari – to wonder at,
The vital role of mirroring in our lives can be seen in the the way the
advent of the glass mirror has materially changed our world.
There are good arguments to support the notion that the glass
mirror was pivotal in enabling the Renaisance and the body of knowledge
generated by telescopes, microscopes and drawing mirrors. For instance
check out “The
Glass Mirror and the Renaissance” Art and Individuality.
The article discusses the interesting notion:
….it is usually agreed that this tendency towards stress on the individual grew stronger and reached its peak from the fifteenth century onwards. What seems indisputable is that a great shift took place. Furthermore, this was initially a western European phenomenon, as more recent anthropologists have confirmed. Could this also have been connected to glass?
It is useful to this dicussion to note some of the massive shifts in our Western perceptions that occurred about this time. There was an increased tendency to imagine:
-the mind distinct from the body;
-humans distinct from nature and in dominion over it (the glasshouse/greenhouse model of Earth);
-the observer distinct from the observed (scientist = disassociated observer);
-and science distinct from art,languages and life generally.
These sharpened distinctions have perhaps enabled us to focus our reflective capacity on select aspects of life and to develop enhanced schools of knowledge of individual elements of it. It certainly has enabled us to consume the resources on Earth on an unprecedented scale.
However the same process works to alianate us from the core reality of our universe and the requisites of science tend to fade from consciousness. The mirror becomes clouded and deformed. The problem is that ownership of specialised knowledge acts as a trap in that we can begin to believe it makes us exempt from the general impact of our activities on environmental balances. We tend to become exclusive, distrustful and lose compassion. There is increased risk of a civilisation becoming maladapted to change.
To to use an uncouth definition from my youth, “The definition of an expert is a person who knows more and more about less and less, thereby creating a spiral whereby they end up in their own fundamental oriface.”
Or as Asian sages have observed of Western psychology, our vision of ourselves becomes trapped like the multitude of diminishing reflections created when two mirrors are placed in reflection of each other.
In simple summary, without the requisites of science we fail to mirror
reality accurately and are at increased risk of experiencing war,
famine, disease and misery. We tend to deny the facts that we are mortal
forms and that our activities impact on the trace balances
in the environment that sustain us and our children. Put even
more simply, we tend to be amoral and pollute. We become obsessed with
the survival of the individual at the expense of our children.
Recent shifts in the definition of science (c1500-)
The shift in Western perceptions and definitions of science is alluded to in the Wiki definition of science. The origins of the science symbol suggest previous generations were aware that knowledge cannot be separated from morality:
The word science comes from the Latin word scientia for knowledge. The Indo-European root means to discern or to separate, akin to Sanskrit chyati, he cuts off, Greek schizein, to split, Latin scindere, to split. From the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, science or scientia meant any systematic or exact recorded knowledge. Science therefore had the same sort of very broad meaning that philospophy had at that time. In some languages, including French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, the word corresponding to science still carries this meaning.
The current Western use of the science symbol is part of a wider ethos of denial. Scientific knowledge is defined as a disconnected body of information and is viewed without philosophy (the love of wisdom). Knowledge is viewed as a mere commodity to be generated, sequestered and traded without consideration of the impact of its use. In modern terms, “something out there” such as The Market will reflect reality and sustain us. We can trade away responsibility for our actions. Knowledge is accorded little or no value unless it can be traded, taxed and used to exploit others.
The purpose and process of science.
The underlying goal or purpose of science to society and individuals is to produce useful models of reality. It has been said that it is virtually impossible to make inferences from human senses which actually describe what “is.” On the other hand, people can form hypotheses based on observations that they make in the world.
The wiki definition describes the science method thus:
Scientists use model to refer to
a description of something, specifically one which can be used to make
predictions that can be tested by experiment or observation. A hypothesis
is a contention that has been neither well supported nor yet ruled out
by experiment. A theory, in the context of science, is a
logically self-consistent model or framework for describing the behavior
of a certain natural phenomena. A theory typically describes the
behavior of much broader sets of phenomena than a hypothesis —
commonly, a large number of hypotheses may be logically bound together
by a single theory. A physical law or law of nature is a
scientific generalization based on a sufficiently large number of
empirical observations that it is taken as fully verified.
This excerpt reflects the general confusion generated by the denial of reality in our culture.
For a start, the definition is framed by the concept that a few people are scientists ie most people are not scientists. In creating an exclusive category of people called scientists it excludes all other humans. For science to exist any definition needs be inclusive. This exclusive definition of a scientist breeds elitism. It put us all at high risk in that it accords certain individuals status and wisdom far beyond their narrow specialist knowledge merits.
The Wiki definition then suggests the scientific method provides an “objective process”. This statement can be viewed as a deeply subjective statement and in denial of reality ie our existence as trace elements of a flux, a universe in constant state of movement and change. The reality is that the observer affects the observed by observing.
The Wiki definition also suggests the existence of “scientific fields”. This suggests there are some fields that are considered “non scientific”and exclusive of science. My identification of the distinction might be dismissed as pedantic so I will give a common example.
In our Western culture there is the tendency for the study of climate patterns to be called science whereas the communication of the knowledge of the climate is not called science. Hence climatologists apply different standards of science to the study of climate to their communication of climate knowledge. High value is placed on the former, low value on the latter. As a result they end up using symbols that reflect their personalities and preferred lifestyles, not the climate process. They frame knowledge in non-science.
This seeming arbitrary distinction between “scientific fields” and “non scientitic fields” should be seen in the context of the extensive confusion and dysfunction in our culture. We have a culture in which even the vital energy and power symbols, like science, have been redefined in the popular media to portray only that which can be traded and taxed as commodities and provide paid careers. It is a culture that confuses energy with the forms it takes so we can justify using resources as though they are limitless.
More generally such exclusive behavior evidences a wider tendency in our culture to deny we are mortal forms and that our actions have consequences for our chidlren. In short it is amoral, if not immoral.
Confusion of science with technology.
For a large part of recorded history, science had little bearing on
people's everyday lives. Scientific knowledge was gathered for its own
sake, and it had few practical applications. However, with the dawn of
the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, this rapidly changed.
Today, science has a profound effect on the way we live, largely through technology—the use of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Thus science is practiced formally, in universities and other scientific institutes and it has become a solid vocation in academia. However, informally many more people who are not associated with any university or research institute practice science in their daily life. As people involved in the field of science education often argue that the process of science is performed by all individuals as they learn about their world. For example, science is often practiced by amateurs who typically engage in the observational part of science.
Workers in corporate research laboratories also practice science, although their results are often deemed trade secrets and not published in public journals….
confuses technology and our use of resources with science. Our current
civilisation of 6.5 billion people is based on the unsustainable use of
fossil fuels and Bulk-generated electricity. As these resources run out
our civilisastion will quickly fail. This is because there is a LACK OF
SCIENCE underpinning our culture. We have made the fatal error of
confusing energy with the forms it takes. We have built systems based on
uses of coal, Natural Gas and oil etc as they they are as bounteous as
energy. This does not mirror reality and is a recipe for war.
Science and learning
The only sentence that displays the requisites of science is the suggestion that “the process of science is performed by all individuals as they learn about their world.”
The truth of this is perhaps more apparent to people who understand the complex processes that enable us to learn, create and develop language. They comprehend that it is the process of experimentation and reflection that enables us to communicate using symbols in the forms of sounds and visual texts. Without science there is no language and art. Indeed the most reflective (enlightened) human beings tend to experience them as one. They do not differentiate art, science and language.
In summary, all those who know empathy with other humans and the wider environment use science to some significant degree.
Expertise v science
It is very possible for individuals to learn a great deal about some limited aspect of our environment, have considerable specialist knowledge and yet be relatively incapable of employing the requisites of science in their general lives. Indeed in our culture, it is common to find individuals, companies and countries who have advanced expertise in one field and yet they are unable to apply scientific rigour to their communication of their knowledge. Our so-called scientists and people in the “knowledge-based economies” can evidence less science in their lives than majority of the populace on Earth. Indeed it is possible to argue that sanity prevails despite many of our so-called scientists. The statistics of their relative uses of solar, fossil fuel and nuclear reaction provide ample evidence of this.
A specific example of how specialists often lack science is illustrated in the way climate experts state that “warming = warming up”. They state this in a context in which they call the human-induced thermal build-up of the atmosphere “climate change”. This reflects a primal denial of both change and balance in our lives in the speaker. The reality is:
warming = incoming thermal energy = outgoing thermal energy = cooling = unchanged temperature = balanced state = thermal equilibrium
warming up = incoming thermal energy > outgoing thermal energy =change temperature (> temperature) =unbalanced state= thermal non-equilibrium
To state that warming = warming up and balance =imbalance as “climate experts” do is nonsense. (Click here for an extended list of similar common uses of symbols designed to generate nonsense or non-science.)
“Climate experts” are in that select group of the people who are commonly extolled as “scientists”. Indeed many call themselves scientists, especially when they wish to gain extra authority for their views.
The person that knows science does not call themselves a “scientist” as they know all humans are born scientists. They are aware that at most they are differentiated only by some extra knowledge in a specific field. Similarly it is nonsense to talk of “science communities” as the Wiki definition does.
The reality that science evidences ( e.g. as manifest in The Principle of the Conservation of Energy, the Uncertainty Principle etc) is that, to repeat myself, humans are trace mortal forms in a constantly changing flux of energy. It is very easy for us to deny this reality. We need constantly attempt to mirror the trace balances of this flux of transformation if we are to optimise our existence. We need, as individuals and societies, to constantly reflect on and generate models of this reality.
Note: Model is from modus (measure) and measure involves evaluation and judgement.
As part of the flux we cannot know its full nature. To optimise the survival of all humans, we make judgements based on a love of wisdom. Every act is a moral decision (see bonusjoules-junkjoules) and we need draw on the capacities and principles of science that have sustained humans this far and enabled us to mirror the balances.
It is not the fact that we are endowed with investigative traits that enables science. Rather it is how and why we investigate that affects our ability to accurately create models.
Note: models are “systems of images that strongly represent something else” (Britannica World Language Dictionary).
In defining the requisites for science to exist we need be mindful that in this case the “something else” we need mirror is the total reality which sustains us.
Requisites for science
Here are some of the requisites for science. I provide each with brief discussion of why I believe they are essential for science to exist and why science does not exist in their absence. It should become apparent that each is essentially a restatement of each other and each is generated by the great principles of science such as Uncertainty Principle and the Principle of the Conservation of Energy
Learning, creativity and invention best occurs when errors are perceived as actions to be grateful for in that they provide us with opportunities to develop more sustainable ways and greater insights. The less we “own” knowledge, the greater our ability to identify flaws in it and reduce them. Knowledge is freer to pass through us and the more we can know science. This “forgiveness of perceived error” is the essence of compassion for the self and others. It enables us to be in greater harmony with the balances of the environment.
Without compassion science does not exist because we punish ourselves for perceived errors, tend to deny them and fail to enjoy the insights different individuals and societies can bring. Learning becomes difficult. In the extreme, a lack of compassion results in self-hatred, disease and suicide. Knowledge without compassion generates division, racism, hatred, war and degradation.
We each reflect different elements of reality because of our different and changing positions in space and time. All ideas and viewpoints have value and potential. Put simply we need learn from everyone and every other human is our teacher. When science exists, tolerance, sharing and empathy exist. The dignity of all humans is sustained. The Wiki discussion sums it up thus:
Scientists never claim absolute knowledge…. a proven scientific theory is always open to falsification, if new evidence is presented. Even the most basic and fundamental theories may turn out to be imperfect if new observations are inconsistent with them. Critical to this process is making every relevant aspect of research publicly available, which permits peer review of published results, and also allows ongoing review and repeating of experiments and observations by multiple researchers operating independently of one another. Only by fulfilling these expectations can it be determined how reliable the experimental results are for potential use by others.
Without Inclusiveness science does not exist and we have the phenomenon of companies and nations
attempting to own and manipulate all gene structures, communication
technology and knowledge paradigms for their own short term benefit.
Normal healthy processes are redefined as diseases. Pharmaceuticals maim
and kill rather than cure. Life enhancing knowledge is suppressed.
The Uncertainty Principle is denied.
The Uncertainty Principle is denied.
sharing and collegiality
Without openness, sharing and collegiality science does not exist when individuals, institutions and states create blocks to the sharing of knowledge. Human is set against human and all are degraded in the process.
Without Time and Trust science does not exist when we fail to give time to knowledge processes. We become exclusive, fail to reflect our greater wisdom and are at increased risk of adopting maladaptive behaviour. Without trust, we do not see the value in time and fail to ask questions in sufficiently open spirit for them to provide optimal answers. We tend to deny change and our mortality. This is often expressed in the statement “ I am too busy to reflect…”
“Critical thinking” is embraced and science is enhanced
Without Honesty science does not exist and mistrust prevails. Knowledge is used to create weapons of destruction, promote self-hatred and we fail to mirror reality. Denial of change and the mortal nature of all forms flourishes and we become at high risk of self-driven misery and extinction.
Without reflection science does not exist, we fail to mirror the balances of the universe that sustain us, we use resources in an unsustainable way and civilisation ceases to exist.
To recapitulate, all these qualities are interdependent on each other. For instance reflection cannot occur unless a question is given time to work. Honesty cannot occur without the mutually shared compassion required to acknowledge and welcome insights into potential flaws. Time will not be allowed if we do not value reflection and know trust.
Evaluating the existence of science.
Hence, the evaluation of the level of science experienced by an individual or by a nation is best made using individual or national statistics of performance e.g. by how much the lifestyle mirrors and is in harmony with the environmental trace balances that sustain all humans.
I suggest a definition of science that includes the capacities I outlined is inclusive, places humans more in harmony with our environment and empowers us so we more able to accept responsibility for the impacts of our activities on it. It suggests science can be a great source of joy even as it makes no claims that science is easy.
It is interesting to observe that the promotion of all these qualities would probably be included in an ethics or civics programme in schools and they are the essence of the most sustainable definitions of democracy.
Knowledge used with science generates bonusjoules i.e. behaviour driven by long-term and low risk considerations.
Knowledge used without science generates junkjoules i.e. behaviour driven by short-term and high-risk considerations.
2006 New Zealand draft education curriculum -Quick Reflections
By defining it as separate from language and art it creates major barriers. Our children are denied the science that enabled them to originally learn languages and communicate.
They are denied art because they are taught it is not science. As a result, for instance, they fail to learn that drawing is simply another language and that it is by constant and rigorous experimentation that we are able to capture the truth of the subject. Instead they are told art is exclusive of those without the right genes.
They fail to learn that any language can be learned using science, just as they learned the language they were born into.
The draft curriculum framework acts to diminish awareness of the central role of morality in our decision-making and reduces acceptance of mortality in our lives. It divorces the knowledge we generate from our responsibility for its use. In so doing the draft curriculum promotes amorality, if not immorality. In short, it continues the denial of reality that has come to dominate Western culture since the so-called Industrial Revolution three hundred years ago.
Reflecting on the first line of the foreword:
“To succeed in a knowledge society, young people need strong foundations in literacy and numeracy. They need to develop the competencies that enable them to acquire knowledge and skills in essential learning areas, and which will enable them to become confident, creative, productive, and caring members of society.”
Certainly young people need literacy and numeracy. However these cannot exist without science. Technical proficiency in literacy and numeracy will be used in ignorance if they are not founded in science with all its requisites. Our modern psychotic corporations are born of such ignorance. They are full of people with enhanced knowledge of business administration, genetics, physics, chemistry, graphic art, psychology etc. They also work to put our civilisation at great risk of failure. The people with their finger on the nuclear missile buttons and who create terminator genes and SUVs are chosen because of their literacy and numeracy. They are also chosen because they will respond in unthinking fashion to any instructions.
The first sentence is perhaps unhelpful then. It provides a necessary condition (literacy/numeracy) for civilisation to exist but ignores the far greater capacities that are required for sufficiency. If a “knowledge economy” is driven by greed, dishonesty and exclusivity then it will not be sustained. It will prove a miserable existence for our young people. A more sustainable forward would read to the effect:
To succeed young people need strong foundations of compassion, honesty, inclusiveness, time, trust, collegiality and reflection. These are the requisites for science to exist. Science is necessary for the development of a body of knowledge that enables humans to better mirror the universal balances that enable civilisation. The experience of science will simultaneously enable our young people to develop language and art. Together these capacities generate the literacy and numeracy skills required for a sustainable society.
Letter to Ministry of Education Review Panel
"Critical to this process is making every relevant aspect of research publicly available, which permits peer review of published results, and also allows ongoing review and repeating of experiments and observations by multiple researchers operating independently of one another.
Individualism is a tacit assumption underlying most empiricist accounts of science which treat science as if it were purely a matter of a single individual confronting nature, testing and predicting hypotheses. In fact, science is always a collective activity conducted by a scientific community. This can be demonstrated many ways, perhaps the most fundamental and trivial of which is that scientific results must be communicated with language. Thus the values of scientific communities permeate the science they produce.
"What is science about?
Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining the
natural, physical world. In
order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding, and explanations,
people generate and test ideas, make observations, carry out
investigations, and construct models.
Scientific progress is the result of logical, systematic work and
creative insight, guided always by a respect for evidence.
Current scientific knowledge has its origins in many different
cultures and periods of history.
Most scientific papers are probably wrong - Kurt Kleiner - New Scientist - August 2005