What Is Science?

In a presentation to the National Science Teacher's Association in 1966, Richard Feynman said

Another of the qualities of science is that it teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true. You must here distinguish--especially in teaching--the science from the forms or procedures that are sometimes used in developing science. It is easy to say, "We write, experiment, and observe, and do this or that." You can copy that form exactly. But great religions are dissipated by following form without remembering the direct content of the teaching of the great leaders. In the same way, it is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudo-science.


Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

and also

It is necessary to teach both to accept and to reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill. Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.

I had the good fortune to get to know Dr. Feynmen a little bit as he was still teaching at Caltech when I was an undergraduate student there almost 20 years after that speech. I even took a class from him my senior year, although he spent most of the term away from campus educating NASA and the public about the importance of listening to the engineers who understand how a thing works at least as much as the goals of management.

As I read the speech I quote from above, I was vividly reminded of attending Feynman's lectures to his informal class for freshman, affectionately known as "Phys-X" because it was not listed in any catalog. The class met for an hour or two a week most years. Anyone could attend (and there were often a few other faculty lingering in back to listen) but only freshmen could ask questions. Each lecture was strongly driven by the questions, although it is likely that he had a goal in mind and guided the discussion more than I noticed at the time. I tried to attend as often as I could because he had a rare knack for clear explanation, and for those precious few moments I got to share in his sense of wonder.

Why am I reminiscing about one of the world's finest teachers, safecrackers, bongo players, artists and physicists?

Because I am searching for a way to explain my core frustration with the current global attempt to misuse science in the name of environmentalism. I thought I would start to organize my thoughts beginning with a sound definition of science itself, and lucked into that Feynman speech on my Google-guided wander around the subject.

Websters defines "scientific method" as

principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses

Feynman would probably have called that an acceptable definition, and then discussed all the ways in which actually doing science is nothing like the orderly process described. And in my own experience (although I claim to be more engineer than scientist), he would be right. That is not to say that the idea behind the definition is wrong. I would argue that the definition is just simplified to provide a clear image of a process that is certainly an example of a "scientific method".

Websters defines "science" in part as

3 a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b: such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena

Feynman clearly would have disagreed with Webster here. He always emphasized the importance of thinking things through oneself, at least enough to understand the boundaries of the accepted knowledge. He was also passionate about teaching. I came away with the strong sense that one couldn't claim to really understand something unless one could teach it to another. Even experimental verification was to some degree subordinate to teaching.

I would say that we don't know a general principle unless it can be used to make useful projections that can be tested.

I think of that as a kind of teaching of the principle. If a principle holds, and I understand (at least partly) the principle, then I can make a prediction based on that understanding. That prediction can be tested, and the results speak to the domain over which the principle can be held to be true. I see the prediction itself as a form of teaching about the principle in question.

Failure of a principle to explain an outcome does not necessarily mean that it is wrong on the face. Often failure means only that a region has been found where the principle (no longer?) operates. Of course, after using a principle to make a number of predictions that all fail, it might be worth chalking the principle up as wrong and a misunderstanding. Occasionally, a principle is so powerful in the sense that most predictions it makes can be demonstrated to hold that it gains general acceptance, perhaps as a natural law.

For example, Newton came to an understanding of (some of) the laws of motion. From that understanding he could explain the positions of the planets in the night sky, and even predict future astronomical events. He could also explain motions of simple machines in ideal conditions, and make predictions about their effects. For a long time, Newton's laws predicted everything important about motion.

Except, of course they didn't hold perfectly even at everyday scales because the real world is messier and refuses to provide simple systems of point masses on a frictionless plain in a vacuum. In modern terms, you can't fully explain the motion of a curve ball from just Newton's laws. The ball just persists in acting as if there are more forces present than Newton's laws can explain, and that shows one boundary to their domain. (I'm pretty sure that you need to add some aerodynamics and fluid dynamics to get there, not to mention a whole lot of mathematics that Newton and Leibniz hadn't quite needed to invent yet to explain it. I'm sure that there are gyroscopic effects from the ball's spin that matter as well, but I can't remember how much about that was known to Newton either... but I'm neither a science historian nor a physicist, remember...)

When Einstein came along later and corrected Newton's laws with the General and Special theories of Relativity (yes I am way over simplifying here, but I'm trying to make a larger point without getting bogged down in all the details of the Physics) he wasn't really saying that Newton was wrong. Rather, he was saying that under certain conditions of extreme mass, extreme velocity, extremely small scale, etc., Newton's laws were outside their domain and lost their explanatory power.

Again, I'm not really trying to get all the details right, I'm trying to make a point about the nature of science. Einstein once said "to defeat relativity one did not need the word of 100 scientists, just one fact" and Feynman said "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

I believe that all knowledge is true, for a certain value of "true". Or meaning of "is". Or until shown to be false.

Why do I claim this has something to do with the misuse of science in the name of Environmentalism?

The answer to that will have to wait for a while as I sneak up on it.