The noun science is derived from the Latin word scientia, meaning "knowledge". Thus, in principle, the concept of "science" can be applied to a wide range of subjects (eg theology) or practices (eg cooking) which are not considered properly scientific. Meaning 3 in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (20053), is the closest meaning to what science is nowadays: "3a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through (the) scientific method." More clearly, science is "the investigation of natural phenomena through observation, theoretical explanation, and experimentation, or the knowledge produced by such investigation" (The American Heritage Science Dictionary, 20051).

Theoretical frame

The modern concept of science normally refers to disciplines, rather than to knowledge per se. These disciplines are those such as physics or astronomy, that use any of two scientific approaches for generating knowledge: deductive or inductive approaches. Deductive sciences (eg mathematics) use logic to prove ideas and, thus, set general laws. Inductive sciences (eg physics or psychology), on the other hand, establish general laws by generalising from particular observations: when the same phenomenon appears repeatedly under controlled conditions, inductive sciences "predict" that the same phenomenon will equally (or most probably) occur in future occasions under the same conditions.

The most common use of the concept of science, however, tends to apply to the inductive sciences. For example, Wikipedia defines science as "a special brand of information about the world, practiced by a distinct group (of people) and pursued through a unique method" (Wikipedia, 20084). This unique method is, according to The American Heritage Science Dictionary (20051), the scientific method, which is a manner of inquiry about the world based on "careful observation of natural phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis, the conducting of one or more experiments to test the hypothesis, and the drawing of a conclusion that confirms or modifies the hypothesis".

The scientific method rests on four elements (see also Dewdney, 19972):

  • A question, theory or model derived from existing information about a topic or, when previous information is not available, from observations on the subject of inquiry. The question must address a general law rather than a particular circumstance.
  • A hypothesis or research proposal, which, linked to, or derived from, the first step, suggests an alternative explanation of the phenomenon under investigation or, when the subject has only been observed, a possible explanation for those observations. A hypothesis, thus, makes a prediction that can be tested in order to prove or disprove it.
  • Testing using empirical methods (eg experiments, observations, etc), including the selection and control of testing methods, research designs and samples, and the collection and interpretation of data. When the method is based on controllable experiments, the experiment must be repeatable under the same conditions, including by other researchers. When the method is based on observations on natural environments, the number of observations needs to be large enough as for setting the question reasonably (as an experiment would do).
  • A conclusion, setting the question one way or another (ie proving or disproving the hypothesis). Publication of the whole research may also be included here, as publication allows for sharing any insights gained from the research as well as for other scientist to test the results independently.

The concept of science has important connotations in today's society, many times bringing about polarized positions. On the one hand, the word "science" is used to convey truth, respectability, academic status, etc, to disciplines and knowledge that are not scientific or only partially scientific. The "science of theology", for example, deals with theology as a subject of knowledge but theology itself (eg the existence of gods) cannot be put under scientific scrutiny. Equally, other disciplines, such as political science or business science, can only be subjected to scientific scrutiny partially. In both cases, the use of the word "science" conveys a degree of truth, respectability and academic status that is not granted by their subject of study alone.

On the other hand, "science" can also bring about the opposite reaction, especially from a religious perspective. In this case, anything "scientific" is to be avoided as it normally contradicts the core teachings of those religions (eg Creationism). Subjects such as magic, sorcery and astrology, are also non-scientific, as are others such as psychoanalysis, chiropractic and "oriental" medicine.

Broad categories for science

Formal science Empirical science
Branch of knowledge concerned with formal systems (formal language and inference rules), from which to deduce theorems. Formal sciences normally use deductive methods. Branch of knowledge concerned with the validity of theories based on observations. Empirical sciences normally use inductive methods.
eg logic, mathematics, statistics, systems theory, information theory, computer science, decision theory… eg physics, sociology, psychology…
Empirical science
Natural science Behavioural science Social science
Branch of empirical science that studies natural laws Branch of empirical science that studies activities of and interactions among organisms from an individual perspective Branch of empirical science that studies social systems
eg astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics… eg psychology, cognitive science… eg anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, sociology…
Fundamental science Applied science
Branch of science that describes the most basic objects, forces, relations between them and laws governing them, such that all other phenomena may be in principle derived from them following the logic of scientific reductionism. Fundamental science is also known as basic science or pure science. Branch of science focused on the application of scientific knowledge to technology.

Notice, however, that what makes a "science" scientific is not its grouping into a particular branch of science but its use of a proper method for deriving its knowledge. Thus, it is perhaps more appropriate to name disciplines (eg physics, or psychology) rather than sciences, as not all knowledge in those disciplines is necessarily scientific (eg some are simply untested theories, or fraudulent knowledge). If naming disciplines, then it is also appropriate to differentiate between scientific knowledge and other knowledge withing a particular discipline. It is this knowledge which is formal, natural, behavioural or social, not the discipline itself. A mixed of scientific knowledge is also possible within a particular discipline (eg social psychology) and in interdisciplinary fields (eg neuroscience).

About technology, fraud, bad science and pseudoscience

Dewdney (19972) further differentiates between (good) science and related phenomena:

  • "Technology is not science […]. Technology consists of objects that have specific purposes. Science consists of methods and results" (p5). That is, science is knowledge while technology may (or may not) be derived from such knowledge but covers objects, procedures, and other sort of physical or mental tools. Evidence-based practice, for example, is a technology that may use scientific and practical knowledge, ad hoc "evidence" and data analysis to guide decision making in day-to-day clinical interventions and/or business operations.
  • Fraudulent science imply false claims, stealing of ideas, fudging with experiments, etc. "Fraudulent scientists know that they are cheating […]" (p17). Fraudulent science is also known as pseudoscience.
  • "[B]ad science happens when someone strays in a fatal way from the scientific method. This usually leads to results that are wrong at worst or grossly distorted versions of the truth at best" (p17).

Langmuir's laws of bad science

Dewdney (1997, p27-282) also lists Langmuir's Laws of bad science (which could also be applicable to fraudulent science and similar claims). Bad science may display all or only some of the following symptoms:

  • The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
  • The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability, or many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
  • There are claims of great accuracy.
  • Fantastic theories contrary to experience are suggested.
  • Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
  • The ratio of supporters to critics rises to somewhere near 50 per cent and then falls gradually to zero.

The boundaries between pseudoscience and science, protoscience and technology may be difficult to establish at times. Thus, it is better to think of knowledge as being scientific or otherwise, than of disciplines that are scientific or not. As such, even "traditional" scientific disciplines may have an array of scientific and pseudoscientific knowledge, while beliefs from other "disciplines" may be subjected to the scientific method.

  • Examples of the former is quite common in social sciences, where much knowledge is theoretical (protoscientific or technological) rather than empirical. Pseudoscientific knowledge is also common, as, for example, psychoanalysis within psychology.
  • An example of the latter is the testing of religious beliefs. Although religions themselves are non-scientific, certain beliefs, such as the "health benefits of praying" or the "social benefits of pertaining to a religion" can be tested using the scientific method.
1. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE SCIENCE DICTIONARY (2005). Science. Retrieved from TheFreeDictionary on 24 December 2009.
2. DEWDNEY AK (1997). Yes, we have no neutrons. An eye-opening tour through the twists and turns of bad science. John Wiley & Sons (New York, USA), 1997. ISBN 0471108065.
3. MERRIAM-WEBSTER ONLINE DICTIONARY (2005). Science. Retrieved from The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary on 17 August 2008.
4. WIKIPEDIA (2008). Retrieved from Wikipedia on 17 August 2008.

Want to know more?

A handy first-stop encyclopedia for a quick peering into some concepts such as "science", "scientific method", "research", and "empiricism". Notice, however, that its wiki features may limit its reliability and usability as a referential source, thus caution is necessary beyond that quick peering for contents.

Contributors to this page

Authors / Editors


Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License