by Melody Xu
Cartoons by Alex Hanson
What exactly is science? What, if anything, makes it different from the humanities? There is no definitive answer to these questions. For the sake of discussion, however, let’s draw the line between science, which I’ll define as having the goal of discovering the true nature of the world, and other academic fields. I’ll recognize three different distinctions between science and other academic fields: the role of empiricism, the role of mathematics, and, finally, the role of peer review.
Science, unlike other fields, relies solely, or at least heavily, on empiricism. And what exactly is empiricism? The heart of the empiricist claim is that the only source of knowledge about the world lies in the concept of experience. The scientific method is something that is taught to us from a young age: (1) ask a question, (2) do background research, (3) construct a hypothesis, (4) conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis, (5) analyze the data, (6) draw a conclusion, and finally, (7) determine whether your hypothesis was correct or not. Hidden under the structure of the seven steps is the fundamental concept that there is a requirement for all hypotheses and theories to be tested against observations of the natural world. Regardless of what a priori experience you may carry, what intuitions or hunches that you have, you must conduct experiments in order to successfully accept or reject the hypothesis. It is this underlying structure that leads to the claim that science itself is methodologically empirical in nature.
That is not to say that other fields do not utilize empiricism. However, there is validity in the claim that the core of natural science depends on experience. Every time you watch an apple fall from a tree or you drop a pumpkin from the top of the bleachers on the football field (my high school physics teacher was as cool as the surroundings of an endothermic reaction), you’re confirming the concept of the constant gravitational force on earth through experience. When you put potassium chloride in a container of water, the consequent reaction confirms your hypothesis of the chemical reaction through experience. The more complex and advanced science gets, the further away from the simple process of the scientific method you may be, but I propose that you can always find a loose thread linking any scientific discovery or theory from the past, present, and future, back to the idea of empiricism.
The second distinction between science and other fields lies in the role of mathematics in the field of science. In essence, the way that science describes the world around us through an application of mathematics makes it different from fields such as philosophy or sociology. Everything can eventually be simplified to numbers. The human body is comprised of approximately 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.5% calcium, 1.2% phosphorus, 0.2% sulfur, and other elements. There is a constant force of gravity pulling us towards the center of the earth at 9.8 m/s². Numbers are seen as objective, and as a result, science can be considered objective as well. There is, however, a risk in drawing the line this way. This second distinction, in my opinion, also has a big disadvantage of relying on the reduction that must occur in order for the claim to hold true: that there is a single unique mathematical description that all physical phenomena fall under. The strength of this distinction is as firm as the reductionist claim that it relies on.
The final distinction can be made through the academic scientific communities’ stable social structure, held together through the implementation and practice of peer review. Before articles can be published in scientific journals, they must go through a process of review by several peers of the same or a similar field; this serves as both a safeguard against fraudulent claims, while also adding an additional layer of validity that scientific claims may boast over claims from other fields. Science is defined by an interesting combination of cooperation and competition, working hand-in-hand in order to keep the creative wheel turning, and as a result, the level of trust and respect that the process of peer review is paramount to the success of science. There is an assumed sense of duplicability for claims that made it through peer revision unparalleled in comparison to other fields. For instance, when Galileo first made the claim of being able to observe the uneven surface of the moon (and therefore rejecting Aristotle’s theory of perfectly shaped planets and stars in the heavens), everyone scrambled to create a telescope of their own to observe the moon themselves and were able to eventually reach a general consensus.
There are certainly characteristics of science that make it different from other academic fields, such as anthropology and history. That being said, however, these claims certainly do not mean that there is no conceivable method to reconcile the differences highlighted above. As influential scientists such as C.P. Snow have stated, there is a danger in emphasizing on the divide between science and humanities. This focus on the contrast, inherent or socially constructed, leads to a division in the mindset of the members of the communities and a lack of communication; without such communication, there is a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. That being said, there is still something in celebrating the diversity of all fields, science and non-science as well. My proposed solution to this problem is that we should treat fields just as we people: a balance between celebrating the individuality of the fields and recognizing the universal community we all belong in.