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Science (from the Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is, in its broadest sense, any systematic knowledge that is capable of resulting in a correct prediction or reliable outcome. In this sense, science may refer to a highly skilled technique, technology, or practice.[1][2]

In today's more restricted sense, science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on scientific method, and to the organized body of knowledge gained through such research.[3][4] It is a "systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories".[5] This article focuses upon science in this more restricted sense, sometimes called experimental science, and also gives some broader historical context leading up to the modern understanding of the word "science."

From the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, "science" had more-or-less the same sort of very broad meaning in English that "philosophy" had at that time. By the early 1800s, "natural philosophy" (which eventually evolved into what is today called "natural science") had begun to separate from "philosophy" in general. In many cases, "science" continued to stand for reliable knowledge about any topic, in the same way it is still used in the broad sense in modern terms such as library science, political science, and computer science. In the more narrow sense of "science" today, as natural philosophy became linked to an expanding set of well-defined laws (beginning with Galileo's laws, Kepler's laws, and Newton's laws for motion), it became more common to refer to natural philosophy as "natural science". Over the course of the 1800s, the word "science" become increasingly associated mainly with the disciplined study of the natural world (that is, the non-human world). This sometimes left the study of human thought and society in a linguistic limbo, which has today been resolved by classifying these areas of study as the social sciences.


Basic classifications

Scientific fields are commonly divided into two major groups: natural sciences, which study natural phenomena (including biological life), and social sciences, which study human behavior and societies. These groupings are empirical sciences, which means the knowledge must be based on observable phenomena and capable of being tested for its validity by other researchers working under the same conditions.[4] There are also related disciplines that are grouped into interdisciplinary and applied sciences, such as engineering and health science. Within these categories are specialized scientific fields that can include elements of other scientific disciplines but often possess their own terminology and body of expertise.[6]

Mathematics, which is classified as a formal science, has both similarities and differences with the natural and social sciences. It is similar to empirical sciences in that it involves an objective, careful and systematic study of an area of knowledge; it is different because of its method of verifying its knowledge, using a priori rather than empirical methods.[4] Formal science, which also includes statistics and logic, is vital to the empirical sciences. Major advances in formal science have often led to major advances in the empirical sciences. The formal sciences are essential in the formation of hypotheses, theories, and laws,[4] both in discovering and describing how things work (natural sciences) and how people think and act (social sciences).

Applied science (i.e. engineering) is the practical application of scientific knowledge.

History and etymology

Personification of "Science" in front of the Boston Public Library

It is widely accepted that 'modern science' arose in the Europe of the 17th century (towards the end of the Renaissance), introducing a new understanding of the natural world.[7] While empirical investigations of the natural world have been described since antiquity (for example, by Aristotle and Pliny the Elder), and scientific methods have been employed since the Middle Ages (for example, by Alhazen and Roger Bacon), the dawn of modern science is generally traced back to the early modern period during what is known as the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.[8]

The word "science" comes through the Old French, and is derived in turn from the Latin scientia, "knowledge", the nominal form of the verb scire, "to know". The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root that yields scire is *skei-, meaning to "cut, separate, or discern".[9] Similarly, the Greek word for science is 'î�πî�σ�„î�î�î�', deriving from the verb 'î�πî�σ�„î�î�î�î�', 'to know'. From the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, science or scientia meant any systematic recorded knowledge.[10] Science therefore had the same sort of very broad meaning that philosophy had at that time. In other languages, including French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, the word corresponding to science also carries this meaning.

Prior to the 1700s, the preferred term for the study of nature among English speakers was "natural philosophy", while other philosophical disciplines (e.g., logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics) were typically referred to as "moral philosophy". Today, "moral philosophy" is more-or-less synonymous with "ethics". Well into the 1700s, science and natural philosophy were not quite synonymous, but only became so later with the direct use of what would become known formally as the scientific method. By contrast, the word "science" in English was still used in the 17th century (1600s) to refer to the Aristotelian concept of knowledge which was secure enough to be used as a prescription for exactly how to accomplish a specific task. With respect to the transitional usage of the term "natural philosophy" in this period, the philosopher John Locke wrote disparagingly in 1690 that "natural philosophy is not capable of being made a science".[11]

Locke's assertion notwithstanding, by the early 1800s natural philosophy had begun to separate from philosophy, though it often retained a very broad meaning. In many cases, science continued to stand for reliable knowledge about any topic, in the same way it is still used today in the broad sense (see the introduction to this article) in modern terms such as library science, political science, and computer science. In the more narrow sense of science, as natural philosophy became linked to an expanding set of well-defined laws (beginning with Galileo's laws, Kepler's laws, and Newton's laws for motion), it became more popular to refer to natural philosophy as natural science. Over the course of the nineteenth century, moreover, there was an increased tendency to associate science with study of the natural world (that is, the non-human world). This move sometimes left the study of human thought and society (what would come to be called social science) in a linguistic limbo by the end of the century and into the next.[12]

Through the 1800s, many English speakers were increasingly differentiating science (i.e., the natural sciences) from all other forms of knowledge in a variety of ways. The now-familiar expression 'scientific method,' which refers to the prescriptive part of how to make discoveries in natural philosophy, was almost unused until then, but became widespread after the 1870s, though there was rarely total agreement about just what it entailed.[12] The word "scientist," meant to refer to a systematically working natural philosopher, (as opposed to an intuitive or empirically minded one) was coined in 1833 by William Whewell.[13] Discussion of scientists as a special group of people who did science, even if their attributes were up for debate, grew in the last half of the 19th century.[12] Whatever people actually meant by these terms at first, they ultimately depicted science, in the narrow sense of the habitual use of the scientific method and the knowledge derived from it, as something deeply distinguished from all other realms of human endeavor.

By the twentieth century (1900s), the modern notion of science as a special kind of knowledge about the world, practiced by a distinct group and pursued through a unique method, was essentially in place. It was used to give legitimacy to a variety of fields through such titles as "scientific" medicine, engineering, advertising, or motherhood.[12] Over the 1900s, links between science and technology also grew increasingly strong. As Martin Rees explains, progress in scientific understanding and technology have been synergistic and vital to one another.[14]

Richard Feynman described science in the following way for his students: "The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific 'truth'. But what is the source of knowledge? Where do the laws that are to be tested come from? Experiment, itself, helps to produce these laws, in the sense that it gives us hints. But also needed is imagination to create from these hints the great generalizations ' to guess at the wonderful, simple, but very strange patterns beneath them all, and then to experiment to check again whether we have made the right guess." Feynman also observed, "...there is an expanding frontier of ignorance...things must be learned only to be unlearned again or, more likely, to be corrected."[15]

Scientific method

A scientific method seeks to explain the events of nature in a reproducible way, and to use these findings to make useful predictions. This is done partly through observation of natural phenomena, but also through experimentation that tries to simulate natural events under controlled conditions. Taken in its entirety, the scientific method allows for highly creative problem solving whilst minimizing any effects of subjective bias on the part of its users (namely the confirmation bias).[16]

Basic and applied research

Although some scientific research is applied research into specific problems, a great deal of our understanding comes from the curiosity-driven undertaking of basic research. This leads to options for technological advance that were not planned or sometimes even imaginable. This point was made by Michael Faraday when, allegedly in response to the question "what is the use of basic research?" he responded "Sir, what is the use of a new-born child?".[17] For example, research into the effects of red light on the human eye's rod cells did not seem to have any practical purpose; eventually, the discovery that our night vision is not troubled by red light would lead militaries to adopt red light in the cockpits of all jet fighters.[18]

Experimentation and hypothesizing

DNA determines the genetic structure of all known life
The Bohr model of the atom, like many ideas in the history of science, was at first prompted by (and later partially disproved by) experimentation.

Based on observations of a phenomenon,scientists may generate a model. This is an attempt to describe or depict the phenomenon in terms of a logical physical or mathematical representation. As empirical evidence is gathered, scientists can suggest a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon. Hypotheses may be formulated using principles such as parsimony (traditionally known as "Occam's Razor") and are generally expected to seek consilience - fitting well with other accepted facts related to the phenomena. This new explanation is used to make falsifiable predictions that are testable by experiment or observation. When a hypothesis proves unsatisfactory, it is either modified or discarded. Experimentation is especially important in science to help establish a causational relationships (to avoid the correlation fallacy). Operationalization also plays an important role in coordinating research in/across different fields.

Once a hypothesis has survived testing, it may become adopted into the framework of a scientific theory. This is a logically reasoned, self-consistent model or framework for describing the behavior of certain natural phenomena. A theory typically describes the behavior of much broader sets of phenomena than a hypothesis; commonly, a large number of hypotheses can be logically bound together by a single theory. Thus a theory is a hypothesis explaining various other hypotheses. In that vein, theories are formulated according to most of the same scientific principles as hypotheses.

While performing experiments, scientists may have a preference for one outcome over another, and so it is important to ensure that science as a whole can eliminate this bias.[19][20] This can be achieved by careful experimental design, transparency, and a thorough peer review process of the experimental results as well as any conclusions.[21][22] After the results of an experiment are announced or published, it is normal practice for independent researchers to double-check how the research was performed, and to follow up by performing similar experiments to determine how dependable the results might be.[23]

Certainty and science

Unlike a mathematical proof, a scientific theory is empirical, and is always open to falsification if new evidence is presented. That is, no theory is ever considered strictly certain as science works under a fallibilistic view. Instead, science is proud to make predictions with great probability, bearing in mind that the most likely event is not always what actually happens. During the Yom Kippur War, cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman was asked to explain why one squad of aircraft had returned safely, yet a second squad on the exact same operation had lost all of its planes. Rather than conduct a study in the hope of a new hypothesis, Kahneman simply reiterated the importance of expecting some coincidences in life, explaining that absurdly rare things, by definition, occasionally happen.[24]

Though the scientist believing in evolution admits uncertainty, she is probably correct

Theories very rarely result in vast changes in our understanding. According to psychologist Keith Stanovich, it may be the media's overuse of words like "breakthrough" that leads the public to imagine that science is constantly proving everything it thought was true to be false.[25] While there are such famous cases as the theory of relativity that required a complete reconceptualization, these are extreme exceptions. Knowledge in science is gained by a gradual synthesis of information from different experiments, by various researchers, across different domains of science; it is more like a climb than a leap.[26] Theories vary in the extent to which they have been tested and verified, as well as their acceptance in the scientific community. For example, heliocentric theory, the theory of evolution, and germ theory still bear the name "theory" even though, in practice, they are considered factual.[27]

Philosopher Barry Stroud adds that, although the best definition for "knowledge" is contested, being skeptical and entertaining the possibility that one is incorrect is compatible with being correct. Ironically then, the scientist adhering to proper scientific method will doubt themselves even once they possess the truth.[28]

Stanovich also asserts that science avoids searching for a "magic bullet"; it avoids the single cause fallacy. This means a scientist would not ask merely "What is the cause of...", but rather "What are the most significant causes of...". This is especially the case in the more macroscopic fields of science (e.g. psychology, cosmology).[29] Of course, research often analyzes few factors at once, but this always to add to the long list of factors that are most important to consider.[30] For example: knowing the details of only a person's genetics, or their history and upbringing, or the current situation may not explain a behaviour, but a deep understanding of all these variables combined can be very predictive.


Data from the famous Michelson'Morley experiment

Mathematics is essential to the sciences. One important function of mathematics in science is the role it plays in the expression of scientific models. Observing and collecting measurements, as well as hypothesizing and predicting, often require extensive use of mathematics. Arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus, for example, are all essential to physics. Virtually every branch of mathematics has applications in science, including "pure" areas such as number theory and topology.

Statistical methods, which are mathematical techniques for summarizing and analyzing data, allow scientists to assess the level of reliability and the range of variation in experimental results. Statistical analysis plays a fundamental role in many areas of both the natural sciences and social sciences.

Computational science applies computing power to simulate real-world situations, enabling a better understanding of scientific problems than formal mathematics alone can achieve. According to the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, computation is now as important as theory and experiment in advancing scientific knowledge.[31]

Whether mathematics itself is properly classified as science has been a matter of some debate. Some thinkers see mathematicians as scientists, regarding physical experiments as inessential or mathematical proofs as equivalent to experiments. Others do not see mathematics as a science, since it does not require an experimental test of its theories and hypotheses. Mathematical theorems and formulas are obtained by logical derivations which presume axiomatic systems, rather than the combination of empirical observation and logical reasoning that has come to be known as scientific method. In general, mathematics is classified as formal science, while natural and social sciences are classified as empirical sciences.[32]

Scientific community

The Meissner effect causes a magnet to levitate above a superconductor

The scientific community consists of the total body of scientists, its relationships and interactions. It is normally divided into "sub-communities" each working on a particular field within science.


Fields of science are widely recognized categories of specialized expertise, and typically embody their own terminology and nomenclature. Each field will commonly be represented by one or more scientific journal, where peer reviewed research will be published.


Louis XIV visiting the Académie des sciences in 1671

Learned societies for the communication and promotion of scientific thought and experimentation have existed since the Renaissance period.[33] The oldest surviving institution is the Accademia dei Lincei in Italy.[34] National Academy of Sciences are distinguished institutions that exist in a number of countries, beginning with the British Royal Society in 1660[35] and the French Académie des Sciences in 1666.[36]

International scientific organizations, such as the International Council for Science, have since been formed to promote cooperation between the scientific communities of different nations. More recently, influential government agencies have been created to support scientific research, including the National Science Foundation in the U.S.

Other prominent organizations include the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Argentina, the academies of science of many nations, CSIRO in Australia, Centre national de la recherche scientifique in France, Max Planck Society and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in Germany, and in Spain, CSIC.


An enormous range of scientific literature is published.[37] Scientific journals communicate and document the results of research carried out in universities and various other research institutions, serving as an archival record of science. The first scientific journals, Journal des Sçavans followed by the Philosophical Transactions, began publication in 1665. Since that time the total number of active periodicals has steadily increased. As of 1981, one estimate for the number of scientific and technical journals in publication was 11,500.[38] Today Pubmed lists almost 40,000, related to the medical sciences only.[39]

Most scientific journals cover a single scientific field and publish the research within that field; the research is normally expressed in the form of a scientific paper. Science has become so pervasive in modern societies that it is generally considered necessary to communicate the achievements, news, and ambitions of scientists to a wider populace.

Science magazines such as New Scientist, Science & Vie and Scientific American cater to the needs of a much wider readership and provide a non-technical summary of popular areas of research, including notable discoveries and advances in certain fields of research. Science books engage the interest of many more people. Tangentially, the science fiction genre, primarily fantastic in nature, engages the public imagination and transmits the ideas, if not the methods, of science.

Recent efforts to intensify or develop links between science and non-scientific disciplines such as Literature or, more specifically, Poetry, include the Creative Writing Science resource developed through the Royal Literary Fund.[40]

Philosophy of science

Velocity-distribution data of a gas of rubidium atoms, confirming the discovery of a new phase of matter, the Bose'Einstein condensate

The philosophy of science seeks to understand the nature and justification of scientific knowledge. It has proven difficult to provide a definitive account of scientific method that can decisively serve to distinguish science from non-science. Thus there are legitimate arguments about exactly where the borders are, which is known as the problem of demarcation. There is nonetheless a set of core precepts that have broad consensus among published philosophers of science and within the scientific community at large. For example, it is universally agreed that scientific hypotheses and theories must be capable of being independently tested and verified by other scientists in order to become accepted by the scientific community.

There are different schools of thought in the philosophy of scientific method. Methodological naturalism maintains that scientific investigation must adhere to empirical study and independent verification as a process for properly developing and evaluating natural explanations for observable phenomena.[41] Methodological naturalism, therefore, rejects supernatural explanations, arguments from authority and biased observational studies. Critical rationalism instead holds that unbiased observation is not possible and a demarcation between natural and supernatural explanations is arbitrary; it instead proposes falsifiability as the landmark of empirical theories and falsification as the universal empirical method. Critical rationalism argues for the ability of science to increase the scope of testable knowledge, but at the same time against its authority, by emphasizing its inherent fallibility. It proposes that science should be content with the rational elimination of errors in its theories, not in seeking for their verification (such as claiming certain or probable proof or disproof; both the proposal and falsification of a theory are only of methodological, conjectural, and tentative character in critical rationalism).[42] Instrumentalism rejects the concept of truth and emphasizes merely the utility of theories as instruments for explaining and predicting phenomena.[43]

Biologist Stephen J. Gould maintained that certain philosophical propositions'i.e., 1) uniformity of law and 2) uniformity of processes across time and space'must first be assumed before you can proceed as a scientist doing science. Gould summarized this view as follows: "You cannot go to a rocky outcrop and observe either the constancy of nature's laws nor the working of unknown processes. It works the other way around." You first assume these propositions and "then you go to the out crop of rock."[44]

Pseudoscience, fringe science, and junk science

An area of study or speculation that masquerades as science in an attempt to claim a legitimacy that it would not otherwise be able to achieve is sometimes referred to as pseudoscience, fringe science, or "alternative science". Another term, junk science, is often used to describe scientific hypotheses or conclusions which, while perhaps legitimate in themselves, are believed to be used to support a position that is seen as not legitimately justified by the totality of evidence. A variety of commercial advertising, ranging from hype to fraud, may fall into this category.

There also can be an element of political or ideological bias on all sides of such debates. Sometimes, research may be characterized as "bad science", research that is well-intentioned but is seen as incorrect, obsolete, incomplete, or over-simplified expositions of scientific ideas. The term "scientific misconduct" refers to situations such as where researchers have intentionally misrepresented their published data or have purposely given credit for a discovery to the wrong person.


Philosophical critiques

Historian Jacques Barzun termed science "a faith as fanatical as any in history" and warned against the use of scientific thought to suppress considerations of meaning as integral to human existence.[45] Many recent thinkers, such as Carolyn Merchant, Theodor Adorno and E. F. Schumacher considered that the 17th century scientific revolution shifted science from a focus on understanding nature, or wisdom, to a focus on manipulating nature, i.e. power, and that science's emphasis on manipulating nature leads it inevitably to manipulate people, as well.[46] Science's focus on quantitative measures has led to critiques that it is unable to recognize important qualitative aspects of the world.[46]

Philosopher of science Paul K Feyerabend advanced the idea of epistemological anarchism, which holds that there are no useful and exception-free methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge, and that the idea that science can or should operate according to universal and fixed rules is unrealistic, pernicious and detrimental to science itself.[47] Feyerabend advocates treating science as an ideology alongside others such as religion, magic and mythology, and considers the dominance of science in society authoritarian and unjustified.[47] He also contended (along with Imre Lakatos) that the demarcation problem of distinguishing science from pseudoscience on objective grounds is not possible and thus fatal to the notion of science running according to fixed, universal rules.[47]

Feyerabend also criticized Science for not having evidence for its own philosophical precepts. Particularly the notion of Uniformity of Law and the Uniformity of Process across time and space. "We have to realize that a unified theory of the physical world simply does not exist" says Feyerabend, "We have theories that work in restricted regions, we have purely formal attempts to condense them into a single formula, we have lots of unfounded claims (such as the claim that all of chemistry can be reduced to physics), phenomena that do not fit into the accepted framework are suppressed; in physics, which many scientists regard as the one really basic science, we have now at least three different points of view...without a promise of conceptual (and not only formal) unification"[48].

Professor Stanley Aronowitz scrutinizes science for operating with the presumption that the only acceptable criticisms of science are those conducted within the methodological framework that science has set up for itself. That science insists that only those who have been inducted into its community, through means of training and credentials, are qualified to make these criticisms.[49] Aronowitz also alleges that while scientists consider it absurd that Fundamentalist Christianity uses biblical references to bolster their claim that the bible is true, scientists pull the same tactic by using the tools of science to settle disputes concerning its own validity.[50]

Psychologist Carl Jung believed that though science attempted to understand all of nature, the experimental method imposed artificial and conditional questions that evoke equally artificial answers. Jung encouraged, instead of these 'artificial' methods, empirically testing the world in a holistic manner.[51] David Parkin compared the epistemological stance of science to that of divination.[52] He suggested that, to the degree that divination is an epistemologically specific means of gaining insight into a given question, science itself can be considered a form of divination that is framed from a Western view of the nature (and thus possible applications) of knowledge.

Several academics have offered critiques concerning ethics in science. In Science and Ethics, for example, the philosopher Bernard Rollin examines the relevance of ethics to science, and argues in favor of making education in ethics part and parcel of scientific training.[53]

Media perspectives

The mass media face a number of pressures that can prevent them from accurately depicting competing scientific claims in terms of their credibility within the scientific community as a whole. Determining how much weight to give different sides in a scientific debate requires considerable expertise regarding the matter.[54] Few journalists have real scientific knowledge, and even beat reporters who know a great deal about certain scientific issues may know little about other ones they are suddenly asked to cover.[55][56]


Many issues damage the relationship of science to the media and the use of science and scientific arguments by politicians. As a very broad generalisation, many politicians seek certainties and facts whilst scientists typically offer probabilities and caveats. However, politicians' ability to be heard in the mass media frequently distorts the scientific understanding by the public. Examples in Britain include the controversy over the MMR inoculation, and the 1988 forced resignation of a Government Minister, Edwina Currie for revealing the high probability that battery eggs were contaminated with Salmonella.[57]

See also


  1. ^ "Online dictionary". Merriam-Webster. http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/science. Retrieved 2009-05-22. "a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study<the science of theology> . . . something (as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge <have it down to a science> . . . a system or method reconciling practical ends with scientific laws <cooking is both a science and an art>" 
  2. ^ MacMorris, Neville (1989). The Natures of Science. New York: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. pp. 31'33. ISBN 0838633218. 
  3. ^ "Online dictionary". Merriam-Webster. http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/science. Retrieved 2009-05-22. "knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method . . . such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena" 
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  11. ^ Locke, J. (1838). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Printed by Thomas Davison. ISBN 0140434828. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
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  26. ^ Stanovich, 2007, pg 123
  27. ^ http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2005/sep/01/schools.research
  28. ^ http://philosophybites.com/2007/12/barry-stroud-on.html
  29. ^ Stanovich, 2007, pg 141-147
  30. ^ Stanovich, 2007, pg 141-147
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  39. ^ NIH.gov
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