Science is Empowering But Hard to Define

| By Steven Benner

Much of the current disconnect between science and faith is caused by misunderstandings of how science works. Here, Benner discusses the nature of scientific progress and the difficulty of defining what is and is not science. 

It is easy to be confused about what science is and what scientists do. In part, this is because scientists do so many different things in so many different ways. By way of illustration, I was a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows in the 1980s. I shared this pleasure with many other young scientists who were also launching their careers within the Society.

One member of my cohort was Gary Belovsky, now a professor of biology at Notre Dame. He was interested in how animals search for food, how this search relates to competition between species, and how nutrients were recycled in the ecosystem. To a layperson, however, Gary traveled in Montana chasing moose and analyzing their droppings.

Another Junior Fellow was Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist interested in the birth and death of the universe. Lawrence, who later wrote The Physics of Star Trek, recently assumed leadership of the Origins program at Arizona State University. As he did his science, Lawrence mostly sat in his office working with equations.

I was a chemist. I was interested in how the phenomenon of life could be understood in terms of the interactions between its constituent molecules, and how this understanding might help diagnose and treat human disease. What I did all day was make molecules, doing something that looked much like what chefs do when they are cooking in a restaurant kitchen.

Each of us called ourselves "scientist". And yet there was scarcely more similarity in what we did in our daily lives than there is between (for example) an auto mechanic and a symphony conductor. Field work, equations, and cooking sample quite broadly all of human activity.

This notwithstanding, each of us belonged to a traditional field of science having a traditional name, biology, physics, and chemistry (in our cases). These sciences are well respected in modern culture. Further, the views of their practitioners are often accorded special standing in the public square, especially when compared with the views of lawyers, advertising executives and politicians, to mention practitioners of a few other noble professions.

This respect is not irrational. Nearly everyone recognizes that biology, physics, and chemistry have empowered society, in the material and manipulative senses of this term. Empowerment by physics is evident from nuclear power plants, spacecraft that land on the Moon, and television sets, inter alia. Empowerment by chemistry is illustrated by the colorful fabrics that we wear, the materials used in our hybrid cars, and the medicines that we take to cure our diseases. Biology has identified genes that cause cancer, viruses that cause AIDS, and vaccines that have all but eliminated small pox, polio, tetanus and diphtheria.

We may not agree that these fields of science have produced "knowledge". We may not know what "knowledge" is. Nevertheless, we must agree that science has produced something that behaves like knowledge should behave. Whatever knowledge is, it should confer manipulative control and predictive power upon those who possess it. Physics, chemistry, and biology have done just that.

In this sense, science seems to be special among other intellectual activities that have engaged the human mind over the millennia, including religion, philosophy and art. Many religions, philosophies, and artistic forms claim to confer "knowledge" of some kind. Yet they do not credibly claim the predictive and manipulative empowerment that the sciences claim, even though they might claim other things, such as aesthetic transformation and personal fulfillment.

It shows no disrespect of transformation and fulfillment as human goals to note that the product of the "knowledge" proffered by religious, philosophical, or artistic thinkers cannot be universally recognized, and therefore does not command universal assent, at least not in the same way that scientific knowledge does.

That seems to be largely because religious, philosophical, or artistic "knowledge" does not generate the manipulative empowerment that science does. You may believe that your faith in the virgin birth has empowered you to do good works. An observer might observe those works and choose not to dispute your claim that your faith has been motivating. But the details lie obscured within your psyche. This is not the case when a scientist tells you that water is H2O, even though you have never seen either an H or an O.

So what is special about science that allows it to create the empowerment that is expected from actual knowledge? Certainly, historians, philosophers, and religious thinkers have been no less interested in understanding reality than Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. We all try to state our propositions in language that makes semantic sense. We all use logic in our arguments. We all refer to the natural world. What we teach in middle school is that scientists apply something called "the scientific method".

No doubt.

But a century of effort has had difficulty defining what that "method" is. This difficulty is illustrated in the context of a suggestion made by Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi and others. These philosophers suggested that scientific propositions could be distinguished from nonscientific propositions by their being "falsifiable".

This "demarcation criterion", as philosophers call it, is widely accepted, even among scientists. Most scientists believe that it is a good idea to make their propositions falsifiable. Yet this cultural belief immediately creates a new debate around a new question: exactly when is a proposition falsifiable?

For example, a few years ago Karl Giberson, discussed Intelligent Design (ID) with Francis Collins, now Director of the National Institutes of Health. In that discussion, Collins wondered what an Institute of Intelligent Design might study, as "ID doesn’t actually propose any falsifiable hypotheses." A clear application of the demarcation criterion, it would seem.

The blogged retort from Casey Luskin from the Intelligent Design community was simple enough. Luskin went to Collins' recent book and found passages where the NIH director had contradicted ID by citing evidence from the structure of the human genome. Collins cannot have it both ways, said Luskin. ID must be falsifiable if observations from the human genome can falsify it. Therefore, ID must be scientific. And so the dispute was not resolved by the demarcation criterion; it simply moved to a new dispute.


In my next post, we’ll continue to examine why simple concepts, like falsifiability, do not adequately explain whether a given activity is scientific in nature.


About the Author

Steven Benner

Steven Benner is a Distinguished Fellow of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL. He received his doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University. Benner and his group of researchers initiated synthetic biology as a field and invented dynamic combinatorial chemistry, which is currently being used in pharmaceutical development.