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Cheap Thoughts on Science


What Is Science?
Some Successful and Unsuccessful Attempts to Define Science


Science is a process. It is a way of thinking, a manner of approaching and of possibly resolving problems, a route by which one can produce order and sense out of disorganized and chaotic observations. Through it we achieve useful conclusions and results that are compelling and upon which there is a tendency to agree.
     Isaac Asimov, 'X' Stands for Unknown, "Introduction"


Science is uniquely distinguished from other human practices: it is the only activity in which the constraints of reality have brought to the quest for deep answers an effective consensus across all the variations that in other respects divide the human species.
     Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the 
     Myth of the Scientific Method


A modern poet has characterised the personality of art and the impersonality of science as follows: art is I; science is we.
     Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study 
     of Experimental Medicine


Science is not formal logic — it needs the free play of the mind in as great a degree as any other creative art. It is true that this is a gift which can hardly be taught, but its growth can be encouraged in those who already posses it.
     Max Born


Science is intelligence in action with no holds barred.
     P. W. Bridgman; quoted in Theodore Schick, Jr. & Lewis 
     Vaughn, How To Think About Weird Things (1995)


Science, after all, is only an expression for our ignorance of our own ignorance.
     Samuel Butler, Note-Books (1912)


I venture to define science as a series of interconnected concepts and conceptual schemes arising from experiment and observation and fruitful of further experiments and observations. The test of a scientific theory is, I suggest, its fruitfulness.
     James Bryant Conant


Science is the heretical belief that the truth about the real nature of things is to be found by studying the things themselves.
     Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense: The 
     Heretical Nature of Science


Science is the search for a consensus of rational opinion among all competent researchers.
     Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense: The 
     Heretical Nature of Science


The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.
     Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years (1950)


Far too many students accept the easy belief that they need not bother learning much science, since a revolution will soon disprove all that is currently accepted anyway. In such a climate it may be worth affirming that science really is progressive and cumulative, and that well-established theories, though they may turn out to be subsets of larger and farther-reaching ones — as happened when Newtonian mechanics was incorporated by Einstein into general relativity — are seldom proved wrong. ... Science is not perfect, but neither is it just one more sounding board for human folly.
     Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang: 
     A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report


Science is a long history of learning how not to fool ourselves.
     Richard Feynman, quoted in K. C. Cole, The Universe and 
     the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty


Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show ... in learning science you learn to handle by trial and error, to develop a spirit of invention and of free inquiry which is of tremendous value far beyond science. One learns to ask oneself: "Is there a better way to do it?"
     Richard Feynman, quoted in James Gleick, Genius: 
Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992)


We must, incidentally, make it clear from the beginning that if a thing is not a science, it is not necessarily bad. For example, love is not a science. So, if something is said not to be a science, it does not mean that there is something wrong with it; it just means that it is not a science.
     Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics 
     Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher
     "The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences"


Science is not "organized common sense"; at its most exciting, it reformulates our view of the world by imposing powerful theories against the ancient, anthropocentric prejudices that we call intuition.
     Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin (1977)
     "Organic Wisdom, or Why Should a Fly 
     Eat Its Mother from Inside"


Science is a procedure for testing and rejecting hypotheses, not a compendium of certain knowledge. Claims that can be proved incorrect lie within its domain (as false statements to be sure, but as proposals that meet the primary methodological criterion of testability). But theories that cannot be tested in principle are not part of science.
     Stephen Jay Gould, The Flamingo's Smile (1985)
     "Adam's Navel"


All science is intelligent inference; excessive literalism is a delusion, not a humble bowing to evidence.
     Stephen Jay Gould, Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995)
     "Dinosaur in a Haystack"


The origin of all science is the desire to know causes; and the origin of all false science and imposture is in the desire to accept false causes rather than none; or, which is the same thing, in the unwillingness to acknowledge our own ignorance.
     William Hazlitt


Science is the knowledge of consequences, and dependence of one fact upon another.
     Thomas Hobbes


The main object of all science is the freedom and happiness of man.
     Thomas Jefferson


Science is, I verily believe, like virtue, its own exceeding great reward.
     Charles Kingsley


Science is based on limits: It proceeds by progressively finding out what is not possible, through experiment and theory, in order to determine how the universe might really function. It is worth recalling Sherlock Holmes's adage that when you have eliminated all other possibilities, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth. Because of this, the universe is a pretty remarkable place even without all the extras. The greatest gift science has bestowed upon humanity, in my opinion, is the knowledge that whether we like it or not, the universe is the way it is.
     Lawrence M. Krauss, Beyond Star Trek: Physics from 
     Alien Invasions to the End of Time


Science is the systematic classification of experience.
     George Henry Lewes


Truth in science can be defined as the working hypothesis best suited to open the way to the next better one.
     Konrad Lorenz


Science is no more a classified inventory of factual information than history a chronology of dates. The equation of science with facts and of the humane arts with ideas is one of the shabby genteelisms that bolster up the humanist's self-esteem.
     Peter Medawar, "Two Conceptions of Science" (Encounter 
143, August 1965); reprinted in The Strange Case of the 
     Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science


Science is built upon facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science that a heap of stones is a house.
     Jules Henri Poincaré, La Science et l'hyphothèse (1902)


Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification.
     Sir Karl Raimund Popper, quoted in Observer (London, 1 Aug 1982)


Science is a great game. It is inspiring and refreshing. The playing field is the universe itself.
     Isidor Isaac Rabi


I believe that science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon the discovery of better evidence. What's left is magic, and it doesn't work.
     James Randi, The Mask of Nostradamus


Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. Its goal is to find out how the world works, to seek what regularities there may be, to penetrate to the connections of things — from subnuclear particles, which may be the constituents of all matter, to living organisms, the human social community, and thence to the cosmos as a whole. Our intuition is by no means an infallible guide. Our perceptions may be distorted by training and prejudice or merely because of the limitations of our sense organs, which, of course, perceive directly but a small fraction of the phenomena of the world. Even so straightforward a question as whether in the absence of friction a pound of lead falls faster than a gram of fluff was answered incorrectly by Aristotle and almost everyone else before the time of Galileo. Science is based on experiment, on a willingness to challenge old dogma, on an openness to see the universe as it really is. Accordingly, science sometimes requires courage at the very least the courage to question the conventional wisdom.
     Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1979)
     "Can We Know The Universe? Reflections On A Grain Of Salt"


Science is nothing but developed perception, interpreted intent, common sense rounded out and minutely articulated.
     George Santayana


Science is not a given set of answers but a system for obtaining answers. The method by which the search is conducted is more important than the nature of the solution. Questions need not be answered at all, or answers may be provided and then changed. It does not matter how often or how profoundly our view of the universe alters, as long as these changes take place in a way appropriate to science. For the practice of science, like the game of baseball, is covered by definite rules.
     Robert Shapiro, Origins: A Skeptic's Guide
     to the Creation of Life on Earth


Science is always simple and always profound. It is only the half-truths that are dangerous.
     George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor's Dilemma (1913)


Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.
     Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776)


Science is organized knowledge.
     Herbert Spencer, Education


Today's quarks and leptons can be viewed as metaphors of the underlying reality of nature, though metaphors that are objectively and rationally defined and are components of theories that have great predictive power. And that's the difference between the metaphors of science and those of myth: scientific metaphors work. ... In the pragmatic view of truth of William James, science is true because it works. Science may not be the only path to the truth, but it is the best one we have yet been able to discover.
     Victor J. Stenger, Physics and Psychics: The Search
     for a World Beyond the Senses


As a scientist, it is very important to me that the sciences be seen a an integral part of our culture, on an equal footing with the humanities. Even so, I have come to the conclusion that the sciences are different from other disciplines. At the risk of sounding terribly authoritarian and unfashionable to some, and of seeming to belabor the obvious to others, I would propose the following statement as a succinct summary of what I see that difference to be:  In science, there are right answers.
James Trefil, Reading the Mind of God: In Search
     of the Principle of Universality


'Science' means simply the aggregate of the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.
     Paul Valéry

In essence, science is a perpetual search for an intelligent and integrated comprehension of the world we live in.
     C. B. Van Neil


The task of science is to stake out the limits of the knowable, and to center consciousness within them.
     Rudolph Virchow


Science is neither a philosophy nor a belief system. It is a combination of mental operations that has become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations hit upon by a fortunate turn of history that yielded the most effective way of learning about the real world ever conceived.
     Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998)


The scientific enterprise is corporate. . . . It is never one individual that goes through all the steps in the logico-deductive chain; it is a group of individuals, dividing their labour but continuously and jealously checking each other's contributions. The cliché of scientific prose betrays itself "Hence we arrive at the conclusion that. . ." The audience to which the scientific publications are addressed is not passive; by its cheering or booing, its bouquets and brickbats, it actively controls the substance of the communications that it receives. In other words, scientific research is a social activity.
     John Ziman, Public Knowledge (1968)