"What is Science?"

From: Stevan Harnad <harnad_at_ecs.soton.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005 15:24:41 +0000 (GMT)

On Mon, 17 Jan 2005, [idenity deleted] asked:

> If you could teach the world just one thing about science, what would
> that thing be, and why?
> That is, what single scientific principle, concept or discovery do you
> wish everyone understood? And why is it so important?

    The single principle is that there is really no such thing as
    "science"! Science is merely systematized, institutionalized common
    sense. The infant (human or other animal) learns from trial and
    error experience what to eat, avoid, mate with, etc. That learning
    from trial and error experience is already "science". Doomed is the
    forager who is not a "scientist" -- who does not learn to avoid the
    grains that have made him sick in the past, favour the terrains
    that have been plentiful, crack the nut before sinking his teeth
    into it. Doomed too is the organism that is indifferent to the
    outcome of his experiments: the one that keeps sticking his nose
    back into the fire. We humans have a second way of doing science,
    over and above individual trial-and-error (experimental) learning,
    guided by the error-correcting feedback arising from the consequences
    of our actions: We also have language, and can save one another
    a lot of risky and time-consuming experimentation by telling one
    another what's what. We can of course lie, or be in error. So our
    statements can be true or false. But the true ones ("Don't eat the
    mushrooms with the stripes: they will make you sick" or "Find a rock
    and smash the nut and you will find something good to eat inside")
    are our second way of doing science: By describing the outcomes of
    our experiments, and sharing them with others.

Stevan Harnad
Received on Mon Jan 17 2005 - 15:24:41 GMT

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