What is knowledge? What is science? What is scientific?

Published 19 Apr 2017

Science – An Overview

Information age

We live in the information age wherein knowledge is fairly accessible. With the inception of Internet communications, finding what information we seek is as easy as “googling” or looking it up in Wikipedia. What would take a considerable time to procure in the old days, we now can get in lightning speed. But does the increase in availability of information mean that man’s knowledge has also increased?

Inflationary use of “science”

The use of the word “science” has come to mean systematic, accurate, or anything that has employed meticulous methodology.

In an era where science is equated to “truth”, many people, especially the purveyors of product marketing, have jumped on the use of the word “science” so that people would equate the positive connotation associated with it to the efficacy of their products. Phrases such as “scientifically tested” or “clinically proven” have cropped up in just about any product you can think of.

The early 19th century up to the mid 90’s saw a resurgence in the interest in science. Indeed, during this period, there were monumental advancements in the modern scientific arena. Wars, particularly the Second World War, were instrumental in advancing and improving various scientific endeavours.

With science comes an implicit sense of authority; and because of this authority, it is important that we are able to weed out the pseudoscientific from the scientific, the “bad” science from the good. This is not an easy task, therefore it is necessary to establish and understand what science is and how it works.

A Backgrounder on Scientific Paradigms

The definitions and the processes by which “science” is based on have evolved through time. Science of classical antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was characterized by scholasticism, wherein scientific reasoning is deductive in nature. Traditional Aristotelian logic employs a “top-down” principle where general facts or principles establish the conclusions. Deductive reasoning involves taking a general principle, and then deducing what will (or should) happen in a particular instance.

On the other hand, the modern age of science is punctuated by a change from this method to inductive reasoning, wherein multiple observations or experimentation give rise to generalizations. This is the fundamental principle by which modern science is founded—that is, facts and observations dictate the validity of the conclusion. Historians believe that this modern or “new” science began with the efforts of Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Francis Bacon.

The “New Science”

(Key figures and how they think scientific knowledge is attained)

Francis Bacon

The Baconian method, developed by Francis Bacon, is one of the earliest forerunners of the scientific method. With induction and methodical experimentation, Bacon’s method was meant to replace the Aristotelian approach to scientific investigation. It underscores the importance of eschewing prejudice and preconceived notions, and highlights the importance of being an untainted observer in order to truly comprehend one’s object of study.

Rene Descartes and rationalism

Descartes believes that deduction is a sounder approach to gaining knowledge—he asserts that reason alone is the way to attain eternal truths. Reality, according to him, can be caused by illusions; therefore in order to attain the truth, one must doubt reality. He developed a method that shows how one can procure knowledge through reason alone, independent of sense or experience. (Reference to the saying, “Cogito ergo sum”).

Isaac Newton

The scientific revolution of the 17th century was a period of great scientific changes. It can be said that up the beginning of this era, science was decidedly Aristotelian, while being mechanical and empirical towards the end. Newton’s Principia provided an alternative view. His work is a reaffirmation of Aristotelian principles, but at the same time, aims to bring the threads of deductive and inductive reasoning together.

Hume and the problem of causality

Hume purports that it is impossible to obtain sound knowledge of the “necessary” relationships between sequences of events. He believes that if B follows A, it does not necessarily mean that B is the result or is connected to A, or will always do so in the future.

Karl Popper and falsifiability

In the 20th century, Karl Popper countered and opposed the traditional process in which a theory becomes established. He claims that instead of looking for evidence to prove a hypothesis, one must seek for evidence that invalidates or refutes it. This philosophy is referred to as “falsifiability”. A hypothesis that survives this test is considered well-corroborated. But while falsifiability is a necessary concept for proving truth (and can be logically conclusive), it is not a sufficient property since other things (such as qualifying evidence) must but used in order to prove that something is empirically meaningful.

Thomas Kuhn and incommensurability

Incommensurability is a scientific philosophy that applies when there is no common measure in which to compare two theories. Thomas Kuhn advanced the idea that scientific paradigms are incommensurable. According to him, rival paradigms will always be incommensurable, and that there is no completely neutral ground from which one can judge their relative value.

Paul Feyerabend

Paul Feyerabend’s philosophy is based on the idea of incommensurability, and is a critic of the idea of having a set of rules that defines the scientific method. He believes that there is no single methodological process by which scientists should subscribe to, and that doing so would limit their activities and hamper scientific progress.

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