The Pillars of Science

In the old days, the word "Science" used to just mean "knowledge", no matter how you got the knowledge, or what it was about.   But these days, we use the word to mean a particular kind of academic subject, distinguished from e.g. knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, or law.

Although grandiose philosophical ideas about how to process all forms of evidence often invoke the word “scientific” for its selling-power, it is less confusing to restrict the term “Science” to mean what used to be called “Natural Philosophy”, i.e. the study of Nature through research disciplines whose methodology is sufficiently similar to e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Geology, and Biology etc.  To avoid confusion, I will always use the term "Science" in this modern sense.

Science is an uncannily accurate method for separating truth from error.  Its accuracy does not come from luck, but from a scientific culture which demands carefully checking hypotheses to see which ones fit the world the best. This culture operates by certain rules.  These rules were not imposed for philosophical reasons by some enlightened lawgiver (shut up, Bacon!).  Instead, they grew up gradually over several millennia.  Eventually people figured out, by a process of trial and error, which methods work best for finding and testing new ideas.

In the series of posts that follows, I will describe six "Pillars of Science": 1) Repeatable Observations, 2) Elegant Hypotheses, 3) Approximate Models, 4) Precise Descriptions, 5) Ethical Integrity, and 6) Community Examination.  Any one of these ideals can be culturally revolutionary standing alone, but together they promote a truth-seeking culture capable of the astonishing discoveries we've all heard about.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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