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History of Science and Technology/Proper usage of the word science


I would like to ask about the reason why we call disciplines that do not involve that scientific method sciences? For example computer science it does not follow the scientific method which is the term that distinguish a scientific discipline from a non scientific one.

Some people say computer science is a non empirical science, but isn't that contradictory because empiricism is one of the basis of the philosophy of science right? It's a core property.

Science isn't about logic it's about experiments falsifiable repeatable experiments, while computer science much like mathematics isn't a science. Actually the funny thing is people don't mind when mathematics are described not to be science, while computer science is science?

Well what I am really asking is did we drop the requirement for something to be scientific which is to employ the scientific method and start to call any form of knowledge science? "political science" "social science" I mean how many of the information there were derived empirically?

ANSWER: Hi Hamad--you are rightly confused, and you have picked the right person to ask this question :)  I write about this a lot, actually, but I’m going to try to keep my reply here (hopefully) short and to the point.  

The simple answer to your question is that people label things ‘science’ in English when they want other people to think the thing they’re describing is either difficult or free of cultural or other influences, or both; the name has nothing to do with what science is or what science means.  (This use of the word 'science' in this way is not common in other languages, as far as I'm aware.)  I’m sure you’ve heard of ‘domestic science’ or ‘sports science’, or who knows what!

There is no universally-accepted definition of ‘science’ or even of the ‘scientific method’ that could constrain this kind of use of the word ‘science’ in English, even in popular terminology.  For a paper I recently presented at a history of science and technology conference in the UK I looked at several UK science curricula, from which I got the impression that we’re really good at teaching the ‘what’ of science (the results of scientific investigation) but not so good at teaching the ‘how’ (how these results were obtained) because we're unclear on what we're talking about when we describe the 'scientific method'.

My big question, the one no one ever answers, is this:  if by ‘the scientific method’ we mean the institutional structure of universities and government laboratories, then we can be sure that because these are human institutions they will never work perfectly and are subject to all of the bigotry, blindness, and error of any human institution.  ‘No no,’ people who object to this say, ‘we agree that human institutions aren’t perfect, but we can trust in the scientific method of hypothesis, observation, experimentation, and analysis, which always guides toward the truth!’  My response to that is that if that’s all ‘science’ is, then how can we distinguish ‘science’ from what people do every day?  Who doesn’t think, at some point during the course of their day, something like ‘hm, I tried a little salt in this last time I made it and it was OK but not great, maybe I should try a little more and find out what happens?’  How do you distinguish the practice of ‘science’ from, basically, just about any other human activity?  Artists use the same set of steps, teachers use the same set of steps, parents use the same set of steps to determine truths about the world, and to guide their choices about how to act in it. And people have ALWAYS done this, throughout our history and prehistory.  Even animals experiment with different techniques to determine the answers to questions.  So that puts you in another bind if you want to argue that, say, people in the Middle Ages were ‘ignorant of science’--they may have been ignorant of some things we know now, but they were not unable to 'think scientifically'--many traditional crafts, including medicine, were developed through observation and experimentation.

Other people, like you, might define science as 'empirical', requiring the systematic use of experiments, but this definition also fails on both sides of the divide.  Plenty of completely legitimate scientific disciplines—botany, paleontology, astronomy—are largely or completely non-experimental, and ordinary 'nonscientific' people do experiments every day.

You didn’t mention this in your question, but I’ll mention it to you as more food for thought:  ‘science’ and ‘technology’ are entirely different things, and people often use the former when they’re talking about the latter (again, because it sounds more important, difficult and objective).  How to tell the difference:  you use science to learn things about the world, and you use technology to get results you want.  So you do have to wonder what people mean by ‘computer science’—computers, and the things we do with them, are for getting results, not for learning about the world (although of course researchers use computers to produce and analyse data about the world, it’s not their primary function).  And ‘computer scientists’ aren’t studying nature, they’re creating better computers, so their endeavour is clearly technological rather than scientific in nature.

Here are a few excellent books that can help you get a grip on what we really mean by ‘science’ and the ‘scientific method’:

I'm happy to talk more about this subject if any of this is of interest!  As you can tell, I myself find it fascinating—thanks for asking, and for thinking about this question.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: I love your response but a few comments
Hmm I have to disagree
English when they want other people to think the thing they’re describing is either difficult or free of cultural or other influences, or both;

Even though that's not wasn't my original line of thinking, but the question to be raised now by such definition you just gave ID (intelligent design) would be counted as science, as long as, no specific deity in mentioned?

Also if predictive ability or at least  unbiased results aren't our minimum standards for science wouldn't that open the door for WooWoo masters  "Deepak chopra"... to sell his quantum mumbo jumbo as valid science? for reference please see this

I mean if empiricism isn't a foundation of science shouldn't materialism be?

ANSWER: Hi Hamad--it doesn't seem to me as if you're disagreeing with what I wrote, you're just bringing up two additional points, both of which I agree with.  

About 'intelligent design'--yes, you are correct, that is precisely what advocates of 'intelligent design' are attempting to do.  I'm not sure how much you follow what is going on in the USA, but 'ID' people are striving to make 'ID' look like 'science' so that it can be taught in schools as a nonreligious subject.  They're doing the second part of what I suggest people who use the word 'science' do--attempting to distance their ideas from any cultural (or in this case religious) ties and make them appear 'objective' and 'value-free'.

I think Deepak Chopra is less concerned with identifying himself with 'science'; he seems happy to be seen as part of a specific culture and a particular set of cultural values.  Medicine has always been a funny one--as I mention before, we've somehow lost the distinction between 'science' and 'technology' (in the 19th century, when people became aware of how profitable artificial chemical dyes could be) and clearly most of medicine falls into 'technology' (only a few of us actually work on learning about bodies for the sake of learning--and this is usually called biology, physiology, or other specialised disciplines)--medicine is goal-oriented; people study and practice it in order to cure diseases, improve health and increase lifespans.  

As I mentioned before, science isn't necessarily about predictive ability--I can predict what my cat will do when I open a food can, without using the 'scientific method'.  As I said, no one has been able to answer my question about what distinguishes 'science' from other rigorous and systematic patterns of human thought; I've never seen anyone identify a procedure, thought pattern, etc. that can be found exclusively in activities universally labelled 'scientific' and nowhere else.

The connection between how we define science and materialist thought is historically contingent--what I mean by that is that how we now think of science, like everything in our (now global) culture, came about through the thoughts and actions of a specific set of people in a specific place at a specific time going through a specific set of experiences.  In this case, it was the English Civil War, and religious wars in general in Europe in the 17th century.  Because of this history, our definition of science is very materialist--imagine in 17th century England suddenly being in the position of having no idea at all how your brother, best friend, or the person standing next to you spiritually understood the world; the only way to establish any kind of psychological bond with them would have been through the material events that you both could observe and agree on (i.e. the results of experiments--as I'm sure you're aware, scientific experimentation became an entertainment fad during this period).  Another thing to throw into the historical mix was commercial activity--imagine what it would have been like if (as some people in America want now) people routinely refused to do business with anyone who didn't share their religious/spiritual views.  English society in the 17th century would have utterly collapsed if religious thought had developed this kind of predominance.  Adopting a strictly materialist worldview, in business as well as personal interactions, was the only way society could continue to function in a world where religions were changing and splitting so radically and rapidly.  This didn't mean people were not religious (though in time the UK became the most secular country in the world) ad that they didn't consider religion important, even of the utmost importance, quite the contrary, but adopting these social rules in a very religiously turbulent society led to the way we now talk about 'science'.  

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: What I am trying to raise is what's the technical/legal distinction used by officials to discriminate between between *alternative* science medicine and real science medicine. I assumed being scientific/materialistic is the criterion for validity of a claim. Sorry for being ambiguous, but ok I mean for example the US army doesn't try employing the power of meditations (maybe?) achieved through communicating with the intelligent designer!

which as you said can now be accepted as science. Why do US military stick to physics and chemistry. What gives them more validity if it's not predictive ability?

I mean I know this seems to be off topic but the way I see it is
a scientific knowledge has to be objective not subjective right?
So it has to work all the time (hence empirical)
and it should work the same for everyone (hence materialistic) because if we were to be some kind of idealistic of solipsistic? we could have your reality =! my reality.

I am not trying to dive into philosophy but i hope you get my point

Well that's weird--I may have answered your latest post without having read it!  With respect to the US military, you're incorrect that they stick to physics and chemistry:

Remember also that the US military has no interest at all in science--they are only interested in results, i.e. technology.  

I do think my last email and its addendum address what you're asking here; I think if you are interested in these questions you'll read Collins' book first, and then Shapin and Shaffer's.  These are complicated questions and the answers may seem counterintuitive to you, so if you really want to get a grip on them you'll read what other thoughtful people have written.

I didn't say ID can now be accepted as science--I said their goal was to be.  I HOPE this goal isn't achieved!

LOL and now I'm super-late for work--happy to continue this conversation later if you like, but I do think you'd be better off chatting with Collins, Shapin and Shaffer than with me!

ETA: Now I'm AT work, and need to do some work, but I have two more thoughts to share (I told you I was interested in this topic!)  First, as you say, science makes claims to universalism, the truth or extent of these claims varying.  Whether something is universal, or to what extent it is, is a good question, but I have another--why does it matter?  Why does it matter so much to you?  I contend that the value we place on universalism is religious in origin.  I haven't yet linked to something I've written, but I will now:

Which brings us back to medicine.  I would argue that there can never be a universal medicine.  People are different, bodies are different, our physiological experiences are dependent on culture to a surprising degree.  We only have to think about how people can survive and thrive on wildly different diets, or how 'being drunk' manifests itself so differently in different cultures.  But making that statement would upset a lot of people--it may even upset you.  When doctors started investigating the different kinds of diseases only of Jewish people, or only of black people, many people found this upsetting--medicine SHOULD be universal, and SHOULD apply to all human bodies. Why does differentiation and personalisation elicit such strong emotional reactions in some people?

ETA 2:  Haha yes go for it--if you want to ask another question on the same topic we can continue the conversation!  But I may need to wait until after work :)

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Carolyn Dougherty


I can probably answer most general questions about the history of science, technology and engineering from ancient to current; if I don't know a specific answer I can probably refer a questioner to an appropriate source. I have done original research in the history of computing and in British science and engineering in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.


I am a PhD student at the University of York, writing about the carrying trade in the 18th century; my previous work at the university includes the early history of plate railways. I have taught courses in the history of science and engineering at York and other universities, and have presented several papers on various subjects in this field at academic conferences. I am also a practicing civil engineer.

BA--Berkeley, MSc--Berkeley, MA--York, currently working on a PhD at York.

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