Charasteristics of Science

We are losing the battle against pseudoscience. Major publishers and media are feeding the public a continuous stream of misinformation, most of which ends up on various best-selling lists. There are now “peer reviewed” journals, published by major publishers, devoted solely to pseudoscience. Almost sixty institutions, including Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Columbia, and Mayo Clinic have departments in which acupuncture, mind-body medicine, qi, homeopathy, and other forms of quack medicine are taught.

What makes matters worse is the existence of certain legitimate and useful disciplines that historically have been considered science because of the attempt of their originators to apply the “scientific method” to them. Unfortunately, this imposition of the “scientific method” from the outside, which carries the personal viewpoint of the originator, has allowed followers to form various “schools” within the discipline, each school based on some competing viewpoint. And the diversity of schools has made it possible for pseudo-scientific ideas to creep into the mainstream of these disciplines.

It requires a Herculean effort to stop this abject intrusion of pseudoscience into the public mind. Nevertheless, it is worth the attempt to make a dent – as small as it may be – by helping the inexpert citizen to identify the unscientific nature of all the disciplines that claim to be scientific. To do so, we have to identify the characteristics that are common among the basic sciences: physics, chemistry, and (molecular) biology.

The inclusion of the word “molecular” is important, because historically, biology was one of the first victims of the imposition of the methods of the older science of physics from the outside. With the tremendous success of physics, some biologists of the 19th century ventured to postulate a sort of “mechanical biology,” whereby biological phenomena were to be explained by mechanical interaction of “biological matter” through the exchange of forces. However, in all such ventures, it was necessary to introduce an “ultra-material” force … the same force that Aristotle called the soul, which was later given a variety of names such as vital force, elan vital, purposiveness, teleology,  and most recently, the biofield.1 Only through the natural development of biology in the first half of the 20th century and the discovery of macromolecules of life did biology join physics and chemistry as being truly a scientific discipline.

Acknowledging that any list of the characteristics of science is incomplete, I have gathered ten important characteristics, which I elaborate in what follows. I have to emphasize that I am considering only the mainstream science.

In any branch of science there are always some “fringe scientists” who work in isolation and their ideas are not accepted by the mainstream scientists because they are not tested and they contradict well-established and experimentally verified and verifiable ideas.

In other words, the following characteristics of science do not apply to crackpot or quack “science,” even if it is pursued by once notable scientists.

1. Materiality

The first and foremost characteristic of science is that its objects of study are material. They could be stars and planets seen through the naked eye; an apple falling to the ground; liquids and gases changing colors and odors in a test tube; layers of the earth crust; electromagnetic fields emanating from an antenna; cells showing themselves through a microscope; atoms, molecules, and DNAs revealed through the eye of an X-ray machine; or quarks, leptons, and gauge bosons seen in the Large Hadron Collider. And this characteristic of science is as old as the conscious man.

No human endeavor can claim to be a science if it is not studying matter.

2. Specificity

Galileo started modern – as opposed to Greek – science. His greatest contribution was the introduction of experiments and observation as the means by which we can understand nature. The main characteristic of an experiment or observation is that it reduces our investigation of nature to a very specific question whose answer is to be found in a very specific set-up. Galileo himself used this technique by observing how a block moves on an inclined plane to discover one version of the universal first law of motion. Newton used this technique by observing how an apple falls and how the moon revolves around the earth to discover the universal law of gravity. This process of reduction has continued ever since in all branches of science to the point that we now talk about the building blocks of matter.

Every material thing is made of some building blocks. Therefore, the scientific study of matter must concentrate on some building blocks and how they interact among themselves.

There is no science that studies objects “holistically!”

The building blocks of subnuclear physics are quarks, leptons, and gluons plus various forces they experience; the building blocks of nuclear physics are protons and neutrons and their electromagnetic and strong interactions; the building blocks of atomic physics are electrons and nuclei interacting electromagnetically; those of molecular physics, chemistry, and condensed matter physics are atoms and small molecules and their electromagnetic interactions; molecular biologists’ building blocks are specific smaller molecules forming macromolecules and DNA through their electromagnetic interactions; astrophysicists’ building blocks are atoms and molecules interacting through gravitational, electromagnetic, and nuclear forces, and so on.

In this hierarchy, one discipline borrows the knowledge gained in the preceding, more fundamental, discipline.

A chemist borrows from atomic physics; an atomic physicist borrows from nuclear and particle physics; an astrophysicist borrows from atomic and nuclear physics, etc. This hierarchy makes science a web that is fundamentally interconnected.

  1. See Hans Driesch, The History & Theory of Vitalism, Macmillan and Co., 1914.

4 thoughts on “Charasteristics of Science”

  1. This view on 10 characteristics of science brings to mind Malcolm Knowles and his 6 andragogical principles that could not stand the test of time. They are nice assumptions derived through a tiny slit on a massive whole solid body of science. They are more of an assembly of general characteristics of all sciences but restrictively assigned to a small branch of science that is of personal interest. The world of science has obviously advanced beyond that limited scope! Science is integrated and science is life. There is science in everything as there is history in everything, including science.

    1. The 10 characteristics are derived from the “old” sciences. No one questions the fact that physics, chemistry, and (molecular) biology are sciences, and they all pass these 10 characteristics. However, other disciplines claiming to be science fail those characteristics (a couple of them can be found under the NON-SCIENCE tab). And many people – including some who are professionals in those disciplines – question the fact that the latter disciplines are indeed science.

      I agree with your last statement in the following sense: everything is made up of quarks, leptons, and gauge particles, and they all assembled IN THE PAST to make that thing up.

  2. Thanks a lot for distinguishing Science from Non-Science as clearly and as precisely as possible! I also have some other comments, particularly concerning the use of statistics in the physical sciences:

    Statistics Shows Psychology Is Not Science
    By Tom HartsfieldNovember 02, 2015
    6-7 minutes

    As Alex Berezow wrote in his piece yesterday, psychology is not a science, and statistics in and of itself is not science either. Then again, lots of useful and worthwhile things are not science. So, that’s not necessarily a problem. What is a problem is that poor statistical methods and irreproducibility damage not just the validity of any one study or one theory, but the rigor and quality of two-thirds of all studies in psychology.

    Alex and I have previously detailed what we believe are the requirements for calling a field of study science: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled conditions, reproducibility, and finally, predictability and testability.

    The failure of psychology (and indeed many other so-called social “sciences”) to meet these criteria often manifests as an obvious symptom: lousy statistics. Statistics is just a language. Like other languages it can be harnessed to express logical points in a consistent way, or it can demonstrate poorly reasoned ideas in a sloppy way.

    Statistical studies in psychology limp off the runway wounded by poor quantifiability, take further damage from imprecise conditions and measurements, and finally crash and burn due to a breakdown of reproducibility.

    The strengths of hard sciences often shine through their statistical conclusions (although studies performed in hard science disciplines are certainly not immune to poor practices). Statistics underlies some of the most important and empirically successful chemistry and physics ever discovered.

    Albert Einstein once said of thermodynamics, a field that can be theoretically derived using advanced statistics:

    “It is the only physical theory of universal content concerning which I am convinced that, within the framework of applicability of its basic concepts, it will never be overthrown.”

    If you took high school chemistry, you may remember Boyle’s Law, Gay-Lussac’s Law, or the Ideal Gas Law. You might have read about the concepts of equilibrium, the ever-increasing entropy of the universe, or the “five-sigma significance” discovery of the Higgs Boson. All of these things are directly derived through statistics performed on atoms or particles.

    But statistics is problematic when it comes to the social sciences. The first key issue is sample size.

    Think of a political survey poll. Every one of these polls states a margin of error; surveys with a larger number of respondents have a correspondingly smaller margin of error. Most social research studies use sample sizes of tens, hundreds, and occasionally thousands. That may sound like a lot, but remember that statistical physics deals with sample sizes that can be described in unimaginable ways like this: One thousand trillion times more than the total number of stars in the Universe. Or, enough sample atoms that if each one were a grain of sand, they could build a sand castle 5 miles high. Or, a number of molecules greater than the number of milliseconds since the Big Bang.

    The next big difference is a bit more subtle: quantifiability.

    Working with such variables as awareness, happiness, self-esteem, and other squishy concepts makes quantifiability hard. This is the sloppy language problem. Even when these ideas are translated into some more concrete measure (say how long it takes a test subject to push a button or eat a marshmallow), the simplicity and truth of this transformation is far from crystal clear or rock solid.

    Precision of measurement is another big issue. A social science survey may measure ten subjects with a stopwatch for a handful of seconds and produce an error of a second or two. They may ask people to rate things on a 1-10 scale. How sure are you that your “8” is not another person’s “6.5”? The sorts of measurements chemists make have no such wiggle room. They ask molecules questions that have exact answers that cannot be fudged. What’s your temperature? How much kinetic energy do you possess? A scientist in Texas and a scientist in Alaska and a scientist on the moon and a scientist at the bottom of the sea and a scientist on poor icy demoted dwarf planet Pluto could all measure the same molecule under the same experimental conditions and get the same answer to five decimal places.

    Even the supposedly concrete measurements often fall vastly short of the rigor of true science. Photon-counting experiments often measure times in the range of nanoseconds. Timing subjects by hand with a stopwatch is quite literally one billion or even one trillion times less precise.

    Finally, the issue of reproducibility.

    While a study of human sexual practices conducted with 44 undergraduate college students may never be reproduced, the predictions of statistical physics will give you a correct answer to 10 decimal places. What’s more, thanks to the enormous sample sizes involved, taking a verifying measurement every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of your life, you’d more likely be struck by lightning than detect any deviation from the theory a single time.

    These distinctions only scratch at the surface of the vast gulf in rigor and objective truth between hard science and soft, fuzzy social science. Statistics aren’t the only problem. While academics may politely demur from judgment, when only 39% of studies chosen from a particular field hold up under scrutiny, the public wises up. They stop believing findings and start ignoring every study. The public may just be right to be skeptical.

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