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Evolution of the definition of science

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Science (Latin scientia, „knowledge”) is „what we know to have learned, what we take to be true in a broad sense, all knowledge, studies of universal value characterized by an object (field) and a determined method, and based on verifiable objective relations [narrow sense].”

The will of the scholarly community, the guarantor of science, is to produce „scientific knowledge” from verifiable and reproducible rigorous methods of investigation. As for the „scientific method” and „scientific values”, they are both the product and production tool for this knowledge, and are characterized by their goal to help understand and explain the world and its phenomena of the simplest possible way – that is to say, to produce knowledge as close as possible to the observable facts. Unlike dogmas, that claim also tell the truth, science is open to criticism, and scientific knowledge and methods are always open to revision. In addition, scientists have to understand the phenomena, and to draw accurate forecasts and functional applications; their results are constantly faced with the reality. This knowledge is the basis for many technical developments with strong impacts on society.

Science is historically linked to philosophy. Dominique Lecourt has also written that there is „a bond [combining]  for science, that particular way of thinking that is philosophy. It is indeed because some thinkers in Ionia in the seventh century BC had the idea that we could explain natural phenomena by natural causes, having produced the first scientific knowledge.” Dominique Lecourt explains that the first philosophers were led to do science (without the two are confused).

Science consists of a set of specific disciplines, each of which focuses on a particular area of scientific knowledge. It is, for example, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, mechanics, optics, pharmacy, astronomy, archeology, economics, sociology, etc. This categorization is neither fixed nor unique, and scientific disciplines themselves can be divided into sub-disciplines, also more or less conventional. Each of these disciplines is a particular science.

A generic term for knowledge

Broad definition

The word science is a polysemy covering three main meanings:

  1. Knowledge of certain things that are used to conduct the life or that business.
  2. Knowledge acquired through study or practice.
  3. Prioritization, organization and synthesis of knowledge through general principles (theories, laws, etc.)

Strict definition

According to Michel Blay, science is „clear knowledge and certain of something, based on clear principles and demonstrations, either on experimental reasoning, or on the analysis of societies and human facts.”

This definition allows to distinguish three types of science:

  1. exact sciences, including mathematics and „mathematized science” as theoretical physics;
  2. physico-chemical and experimental sciences (nature and matter, biology, medicine);
  3. social sciences, concerning man, its history, behavior, language, social, psychological, and political aspects.

However, their boundaries are blurred; in other words there is no systematic categorization of the types of science, which is also one question of epistemology. Dominique Pestre explains that „what we put under the term „science” is in no way a focused and stable object in the time that would simply describe it.”

Principle of the acquisition of scientific knowledge

The acquisition of knowledge recognized as scientific go through a series of steps. According to Francis Bacon, the sequence of these steps can be summarized as follows:

  1. observation, experimentation and verification
  2. theorization
  3. forecast

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), who took over from Aristotle the logic operation of abduction, scientific discovery proceeds in a different order:

  1. abduction: creating conjectures and hypotheses;
  2. deduction: looking for what would be the consequences if the results of the abduction were checked;
  3. induction: testing of the facts; experimentation.

Scientific methods allow to conduct rigorous experiments, recognized as such by the scientific community. The data collected allow theorizing, theorizing allows to forecast which must then be verified by experiment and observation. One theory is rejected if these predictions do not fit in the experiment. The researcher who made these checks must, for the scientific knowledge progresses, publicize the work to other scientists who will validate or not his work during an evaluation procedure.

Pluralism definitions

The word „science” in its strict sense, is opposed to the opinion („doxa” in Greek), assertion by arbitrary nature. Nevertheless, the relationship between the opinion of one hand and science the other hand is not as systematic; the historian of science Pierre Duhem do think that science is rooted in common sense, it has to „save appearances.”

Scientific discourse opposes superstition and obscurantism. In the case of superstition, it is an opposition, science denying supernatural phenomena. However, opinion can turn into an object of science, or even a science apart. The sociology of science analysis especially the relationship between science and opinion. In common language, science is opposed to the belief, by extension science is often considered contrary to religions opinions. This consideration, however, is often more nuanced as by scientists as religious experts.

The idea itself of a knowledge production is problematic: the number of areas identified as scientists do not aim the production of knowledge, but of instruments, machinery, technical devices. Terry Shinn has proposed the concept of „instrumentation-technology research.” His work with Bernward Joerges about the „instrumentation” have enabled to highlight that the criterion of „scientific” is not vested in sciences only knowledge.

The „science” word defined during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the institution of science, that is to say, all the scientific communities working to improve human knowledge and technology in its international , methodological , ethical and political dimension. This was called „science.”

The concept nevertheless has no consensual definition. The epistemologist André Pichot writes that it is „unrealistic to try to define a priori science.” The historian of science Robert Nadeau said for his part that it is „impossible to review here all the demarcation criteria proposed for a hundred years by epistemologists, [and that] can apparently make a criterion excludes all you want to exclude, and keeps everything you want to keep.” Physicist and philosopher of science Lena Soler in his epistemology manual also begins by stressing „the limits of the operation of definition.” Dictionaries certainly offer a few. But, as recalled Lena Soler, these definitions are not satisfactory. The concepts of „universality”, „objectivity” or „scientific method” (especially when it is conceived as the only concept in force) are the subject of too many controversies in order to constitute the base of an acceptable definition. We must therefore take into account the difficulties to describe the science. And this description is possible by tolerating some epistemological „fuzzy”.

Translated from Wikipedia

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