What is Science And What is Not
The vast majority of people, including a great many very educated ones, don’t actually know what science is. Historically, physics and mathematics have often overlapped with philosophy, and many great scientists engaged with philosophers to advance their own thinking. (Einstein’s work can be studied alongside that of Kant, for example.) The physicist behind the theory of relativity was also a philosopher of science and, as Hall points out, Einstein reconfigured our concepts of space and time—itself a philosophical undertaking. What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It’s a form of engineering — of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not “true” knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions — which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment. Many people are surprised to hear this, but the founder of modern science says it. Bacon, who had a career in politics and was an experienced manager, actually wrote that scientists would have to be misled into thinking science is a pursuit of the truth, so that they will be dedicated to their work, even though it is not.
Why is all this ancient history important? Because science is important, and if we don’t know what science actually is, we are going to make mistakes.
Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Countless academic disciplines have been wrecked by professors’ urges to look “more scientific” by, like a cargo cult, adopting the externals of Baconian science (math, impenetrable jargon, peer-reviewed journals) without the substance and hoping it will produce better knowledge.
Because people don’t understand that science is built on experimentation, they don’t understand that studies in fields like psychology almost never prove anything, since only replicated experiment proves something and, humans being a very diverse lot, it is very hard to replicate any psychological experiment. This is how you get articles with headlines saying “Study Proves X” one day and “Study Proves the Opposite of X” the next day, each illustrated with stock photography of someone in a lab coat. That gets a lot of people to think that “science” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, since so many studies seem to contradict each other.
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. It’s very profitable for those who grab some of the social prestige that accrues to science, but it means we live in a state of confusion. It also means that for all our bleating about “science” we live in an astonishingly unscientific and anti-scientific society. We have plenty of anti-science people, but most of our “pro-science” people are really pro-magic (and therefore anti-science). we also have a very anti-scientific mindset in many areas.
For example, our approach to education is positively obscurantist. Nobody uses rigorous experimentation to determine better methods of education, and someone who would dare to do so would be laughed out of the room. The first and most momentous scientist of education, Maria Montessori, produced an experimentally based, scientific education method that has been largely ignored by our supposedly science-enamored society. We have departments of education at very prestigious universities, and absolutely no science happens at any of them.
Our approach to public policy is also astonishingly pre-scientific. 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.