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‘Science:’ You Use The Word, But It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

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“Science.” You know what that means, right? Hard-core facts. Indisputable evidence. No guessing. No “I think.” No opinions. Certainly no faith. If it’s “science,” then there is no arguing. And anybody who doesn’t buy into “science” is clearly wrong.


Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wants to clear a few things up regarding “science.” First, he wants to make sure that we have the definition correct.

Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says “science” is something different.

If that is what “science” is, what is “almost everyone” else talking about?

To most people, capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It is a thing engaged in by people wearing lab coats and/or doing fancy math that nobody else understands. The reason capital-S Science gives us airplanes and flu vaccines is not because it is an incremental engineering process but because scientists are really smart people.

In other words — and this is the key thing — when people say “science”, what they really mean is magic or truth.

Gobry explains that Aristotle is partially to blame (yes, that Aristotle.) Aristotle put the cart before the proverbial horse, when it comes to science.

Aristotle’s definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science.

The problem with that is that it’s absolutely not true. Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.

And it’s this view of science that many people hold until this day. Which is a problem. Because it’s backwards. Science means “Here’s an idea of how things work. Let’s test that idea. A lot. The outcome of those tests will tell us if that idea is true or not.” Instead, we have people who think science means, “This idea is True. Smart people believe it’s True. I think it’s True. Evidence not-withstanding, this is True.”

As Gobry points out, science is not interested in “Truth.” It’s interested in what it can prove, over and over again, in a controlled manner. It’s not a belief or an idea chiseled in stone or even something that everyone and their brother believes.

This is how you get people asserting that “science” commands this or that public policy decision, even though with very few exceptions, almost none of the policy options we as a polity have have been tested through experiment (or can be). People think that a study that uses statistical wizardry to show correlations between two things is “scientific” because it uses high school math and was done by someone in a university building, except that, correctly speaking, it is not. While it is a fact that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads, all else equal, to higher atmospheric temperatures, the idea that we can predict the impact of global warming — and anti-global warming policies! — 100 years from now is sheer lunacy. But because it is done using math by people with tenure, we are told it is “science” even though by definition it is impossible to run an experiment on the year 2114.

“Science” thus becomes a religion: we believe this to be True, and if you don’t, you’re wrong. No, we can’t prove this is True; we simply believe it’s True. It might be a mom telling us vaccines cause autism, hyperactivity and bullying, or it might be a guy on tv telling us that there is not God, but there is Science. And Science is always right.

One of the many, many problems of this approach to Science is that we want to use it for public policy. That’s like using alchemy for public policy.

There have been almost no large-scale truly scientific experiments on public policy since the welfare randomized field trials of the 1990s, and nobody seems to realize how barbaric this is. We have people at Brookings who can run spreadsheets, and Ezra Klein can write about it and say it proves things, we have all the science we need, thank you very much. But that is not science.

Modern science is one of the most important inventions of human civilization. But the reason it took us so long to invent it and the reason we still haven’t quite understood what it is 500 years later is it is very hard to be scientific. Not because science is “expensive” but because it requires a fundamental epistemic humility, and humility is the hardest thing to wring out of the bombastic animals we are.

Remember in 5th grade, when you studied chemical reactions and you (and your dad) built a volcano? Or when you studied simple machines, and had to build a Rube Goldberg machine that used a lever and a pulley and so forth? That’s science. Looking at the thermometer in July and thinking it’s too cold and therefore “Global Warming!!” is not science. And we need to stop thinking that it is.

Read “How our botched understanding of ‘science’ ruins everything” at The Week. (Also, there is a great article that Gobry references that is worth a read: “A Dishonest ‘Cosmos.'”)

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.