What Is Science?

What Is Science?
Science Gone Wild with William M Briggs
Science Gone Wild with William M Briggs
What Is Science?

More streams coming! Including iTunes, if I can get by the censors. You can also listen at YouTube.

See this frog?

The “IFL Science” people say that frog is Science. IFL is a juvenile crudity which many in our “culture” think is necessary to make information palatable. Let that pass.

Here’s another picture from the same crew, which they also think is Science.

One more. Not from them, but a common enough picture these days.

That one Science?

If any of these objects are Science, then why are they Science? And if they are not, then why are they not?

It’s easy to see why the IFL crowd think the frog is Science. It’s that it’s unusual—to them. And it is. Unusual. To them. Maybe not unusual to the people who live by where this frog makes a living.

And stars and galaxies are common, aren’t they? Certainly radio tracking devices are. Who goes anywhere without one these days?

We appear to have deduced that if any of these things are Science, or even if they aren’t, then commonality or unusualness can’t be why they are, or aren’t.

Interestingly, the pictures in each case were made by tools. Camera, telescope, and probably another tracking device with an embedded camera. Are those tools Science? Are all tools Science?

You might have heard that there was a new virus going around, helpfully created by people in our and in a foreign government. Since they can be made, viruses can be thought of as tools. So if tools are Science, then that virus is Science.

Which means roads, handkerchiefs, screws, paper, salt, pencils, baseballs, toilet paper, really everything we use is Science. If tools are Science.

We heard that a certain mandated treatment (in some locales) for the man-made virus is Science. Is it? It is if tools are and we consider the treatment a tool. A much more interesting question is this: is the mandate itself Science? Many say so; particularly those doing the mandating.

If this mandate is Science, then which mandates are Science, and which not? A mandate is when an authority, backed by force of law and implied violence, requires certain people follow a rule. It seems unlikely implied violence is Science, which means if a mandate is Science, it must be the rule itself which is Science.

Are all rules Science? Only some? If it’s only some, which? How do we tell non-Science rules from Science rules?

If you pause to think of it, these are forms of the question: is Science the knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil, moral and immoral? Because that’s what rules are: they tell you what is right to do, or wrong, or best or worst; they tell you what act is good, and which evil; and they say which behavior is moral, and which immoral.

If rules are Science, then Science is ethics and morality. It is economics and health. It is the judgement of every act, with no exceptions. This, of course, includes religion. Science is everything.

It seems we have talked ourselves into the position that everything is Science. That can’t be right, can it?

On the other hand, some people say Science isn’t everything, or ethics, or even tools, but it is a method. And not any method—like following a recipe or the guide on how to say the rosary—but a specific checklist which leads to the discovery of new knowledge.

This is confusing, because knowledge can be of many things. Like who were the people present at the signing of the Magna Carta. Or what is Uncle Bob’s favorite donut. Or how many screws grandpa has in the old coffee can. Or any of an infinite list of items. Most of this knowledge is of low, or no, importance. We know that, whatever Science is, it doesn’t take an interest in everything, but only some things.

Before we get to that, what about that famous method? Well, new knowledge is discovered by historians, isn’t it? And even people like lawyers? And don’t poets, painters, musicians, and novelists have important things to say about the human condition? Whether or not these folks use the same famous method, or they use something else, new knowledge is being discovered.

Many claim this method, and therefore Science itself, is self-correcting. What an amazing thing! Science wanders into mistake, error, and ignominy and—somehow—Science just sits there and the method self-corrects these awful departures! Maybe this is why celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson says “Science is true, whether or not you believe in it.”

But if Science is self-correcting, how can it ever produce a wrong result? It can’t. Unless outside forces, which are not Science, attack it, and weaken it, and insert error into it. Those errors aren’t Science, then, but something else. If Science is self-correcting, then Tyson is right: Science is always true.

Yet if errors aren’t Science and are something else, what are they? Is Science just a list of truths? Well, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, even religions, have lists of truth. Are they all Science? But they all have error, too. Maybe those errors aren’t really philosophy, and so on, just like errors aren’t really Science? So religion is true, whether or not you believe in it?

Here’s what’s strange. How do we know the method has already self-corrected a statement purporting to be Science?

You can’t. So the method itself is not a great candidate for Science, or if it is Science, it is imperfect, and not unique.

But everybody says Science is unique, and amazing, and is nothing like poetry or history. Either Science is everything, like we thought above, or it’s an unexceptional, mysterious method, or it’s something different from all this.

Here, then, is what Science is: discovering the cause of something measured.

That’s it, and nothing more.

Well, maybe not nothing more. We have to understand what cause means, and we have to know what measurements are. Neither are anywhere near as simple as you thought.

Both will turn out to be at times difficult and, at other times, trivial. Certainty can be had in both aspects, or even just one, or neither. That means we have to grasp uncertainty. And since uncertainty is a matter of the mind, we have to figure out the differences between knowledge of things, and of things themselves.

So it’s not a frog that is Science, but the cause of his measured color, and why (because) other frogs don’t have that but other measured colors. Galaxies aren’t Science, but their cause and their measurements are, and neither are certain, either.

Science isn’t tools, but tools are used in measurement, to greater and lesser certainties—what causes tools to work is Science, though.

And Science is not ethics or morality. Science can never tell you what is best or worst to do. No mandate or rule can therefore be Science, which means the people who say they are are either badly mistaken or have ulterior motives.

I haven’t yet proved to you my definition of Science is correct, but I hope you see the other definitions fail. Stay tuned.

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  1. Ann Cherry

    Professor Briggs, I have memorized your definition of science: discovering the cause of something measured.

    I do think you’re being a little hard on “IFL Science” which bills itself as “the lighter side of science”; they should have changed it to “the lighter side of science and nature.”

    Isn’t a photo a kind of measurement? What is the cause of this measured thing, a tiny frog holding a tiny leaf as an umbrella? Is it photoshopped? The publication doesn’t say in their Tweet, but that’s a question.

    If it’s real, then we now know that frogs use tools! That’s a scientific discovery, is it not? When I was a kid, they told us that animals don’t use tools, because they aren’t smart enough, and don’t have opposable thumbs.

    IFL has an interesting article, here:

    Bird Makes Record-Breaking Flight From Alaska To Tasmania Without Landing | IFLScience


    A bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) has been recorded flying 13,560 kilometers (8,435 miles) between Alaska and Ansons Bay, Tasmania, the longest non-stop migratory flight ever measured.

    The article doesn’t give us the CAUSE of this measured thing, but posts a tweet which notes, “So fuel efficient. It probably used about 100g of fat. That would be an efficiency of about 135,000kms per litre.”

    So what is the CAUSE of a Godwit only needing 100g of fat to fly over 8,000 miles, non-stop, in eleven days? Oh no, more science required…or as Gary Larson put it in one of his “science humor” cartoons, “then, a miracle occurs.”

  2. Hagfish Bagpipe

    Very good. Reads like a page out of Sherlock Briggs.

    So that’s science. Whereas, The Science´™ is a crazed mob of terrified lunatics screaming, “wear your mask! take the jab! get your booster!” while destroying everything in its path. Think of that iconic image of Jack Nicholson as a maniac in the “The Shining”, that’s IFL The Science! [diabolical Vincent Price laughter]

  3. Daiva

    The $cience´™ is always right. Until it ain’t. Abysmally. Suddenly & unexpectedly.

  4. umm, interesting.

    1 – nit picker response: your list is endless, not infinite (compiled by finite beings in finite time). Cantor would be proud.. (not sure of whom 😉 )

    2 – umm, your def sounds to me like s= g((f(x)),h(y)) where neither the domain of x nor the reference frame for y is knowable.

    3 – how about “science is the study [analysis?] of repeatability”? Sucky too, but differently so – makes science a study (i.e. a process not a thing), leans into the use of math to codify and analyse whatever is studied, and gently suggests (telepathy at work?) that correct prediction might be important to science.

  5. JH

    Objects of scientific discovery are not limited to causes. They can be things and properties. When scientists discovered DNA, what were measured or weren’t they doing science?

  6. Science is the “explanation” for the moral framework by which the powers that be legitimize their rule. It has nothing to do with measuring or explaining everything. Wee P values give a numerical value to the moral weight of a government edict.

  7. Uncle Mike

    The Aztec’s discovered the cause of poor weather — angry gods — and the fix: human sacrifice. It worked for them and also today for a large number of modern Scientists, who believe human sacrifices will cure drought, floods, and whatever ails.

    If only Scientists could sequester the proles in their mud huts while they (the proles) starve to death in the cold and dark, then presto! nice weather.

    Science is wonderful so long as you’re not the poor slob lying on the stone altar waiting to donate your heart and liver to Gaia — that She may be mollified, finally.

  8. Evert Mouw

    I’m stuggling a bit with the proposed definition of science: discovering the cause of something measured.
    A more limited definition would be: discovering correlations between stuff measured.
    Defining “cause” would then stay outside.

    OTOH, I would also like an unlimited definition, as I am the child of Faustian culture. Science is the process that increases consciousness. A bit like Timothy Leary, seeking analogy in the neuron, which receives, integrates and transmits information. But now Science becomes the child of Philosophy, integrated with (mystic and rational) Religion, and for sure such was never the case 😉 Science should make body and soul immortal, should make us gods like promised in Genesis when we could also eat from that _other_ tree.

    Jokes aside, you’re spot on. You’re deconstructing the $cience(TM) to save Science.

  9. Chaeremon

    Science is a/the method of following one’s own and other questions (since childhood or out of ad-hoc curiosity) to an answer with which hyperactively communicating creatures engage each other. They can do this only because they have accumulated over time a treasure of answers that allows them rampant leisure.

  10. Johnno

    Why is Science?

  11. Chaeremon

    Re: Why is Science?

    Why does the brain of Generation Adhesive stick to the asphalt?

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