Science - The big picture

Friday, December 28, 2012

Lots of students, even after studying science for years sometimes loose the big picture of what is science. By the way, it is highly overloaded terms. The confusion has further deepened by the use of Buddhist/Pali term ‘විද්‍යාව’ (enlightenment) as the Sinhala term for the ‘science’. There are extreme views in the society due to colonial nature of its introduction to our society. For colonially minded ‘science’ is absolute truth. On the other extreme some people think ‘science’ is just bull shit of temporary knowledge of western domination.

The purpose of this small note is not to analyse those different criticisms, but to give you the big picture of modern science so that you can do your own realistic judgments. First, Let’s try to understand the overall picture of science.

What is Science?
Science (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of ‘testable explanations’ and ‘predictions about the universe’. In an older and closely related meaning (found, for example, in Aristotle), "science" refers to the body of reliable knowledge itself, of the type that can be logically and rationally explained.

In modern use, "science" more often refers to a way of pursuing knowledge, not only the knowledge itself. It is "often treated as synonymous with 'natural and physical science', and thus restricted to those branches of study that relate to the phenomena of the material universe and their laws, sometimes with implied exclusion of pure mathematics. This is now the dominant sense in ordinary use."

There are three noticeable branches in science;

  • Formal science
  • Natural science
  • Social science

Remember that though the term science is used they have lots of dissimilarities while sharing some philosophical unison.

Formal Sciences
The formal sciences are the branches of knowledge that are concerned with formal systems, such as logic, mathematics, theoretical computer science, information theory, game theory, systems theory, decision theory, and some aspects of linguistics.

Unlike other sciences, the formal sciences are not concerned with the validity of theories based on observations in the real world, but instead with the properties of formal systems based on definitions and rules. Methods of the formal sciences are, however, applied in constructing and testing scientific models dealing with observable reality.

“ One reason why mathematics enjoys special esteem, above all other sciences, is that its laws are absolutely certain and indisputable, while those of other sciences are to some extent debatable and in constant danger of being overthrown by newly discovered facts.”  
—Albert Einstein
Natural sciences
The natural sciences are those branches of science that seek to elucidate the rules that govern the natural world through scientific methods. There are five major branches of natural science:

  • Astronomy
  • Biology
  • Chemistry,
  • Earth sciences
  • Physics

The natural sciences are among the basic sciences or scientific fields where study is motivated purely by curiosity. They also form the basis for applied sciences which find real-world, practical applications for concepts and methods developed in basic science.

Social science
Social science refers to the academic disciplines concerned with society and human behavior. "Social science" is commonly used as an umbrella term to refer to anthropology, archaeology, criminology, economics, education, history, linguistics, communication studies, political science, international relations, sociology, human geography, and psychology, and includes elements of other fields as well, such as law, cross-cultural studies, environmental studies, and social work. Here the word science is mostly used in the meaning of organized knowledge.

Overlapping areas
Despite their differences, these sciences sometimes overlap. For example, the social sciences and biology both study human beings as organisms while mathematics is used regularly in all the natural sciences. There are also related disciplines that are grouped into interdisciplinary and applied sciences, such as engineering and medicine.

Political usage of term ‘Science’Many issues damage the relationship of science to the media and the use of science and scientific arguments by politicians. As a very broad generalization, 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.

In a latter post we will discuss another popular misunderstood term ‘Engineering’.


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