Denyse’s recent post here on falsifiability tells me that we need more thought on this creature we call science and what it means for all of us, and especially the enterprise of knowledge.
There seems to be a lot of disparate ideas floating around about what exactly science is. A friend of mine noted that there are actually two distinct reasons to define science – either you want to define science as an epistemic phenomenon (a unique way of knowing) or as a sociological phenomenon (a unique group of people).
First of all, in the article Denyse linked to, the author says:
most historians and scientists accept a sociological definition: Science is what the scientific community says it is
This is a sociological definition. However, most people’s interest in science is not sociological, but epistemic. In other words, people become scientists not because they want to be part of the “cool crowd”, and therefore we look to this crowd of people who call themselves scientists, but rather because they want to know more about reality, and science has put itself out as a uniquely dependable epistemological system.
If science is merely a sociological affair, then no one needs to pay it any more attention than underwater basket weavers, unless they happen to be interested in the subject. However, society has, over the last few centuries, been increasing the amount of epistemic weight that it has put on science.
Therefore, definitions of science such as “the thing that scientists do” really hurt the epistemology of science, because it means that it is just about being part of the cool crowd, not having real knowledge about something.
In other words, why should anyone *else* care about science?
The question is, and always has been, public epistemology. Why is belief X not only interesting for you, but something for which I *ought* to believe? The reason why science took hold so firmly was because it carried with it the idea that it was not only private knowledge, but that it was somehow publicly verified knowledge.
However, either the philosophy of science has degenerated to the point where it doesn’t even understand the point, or it has progressed far enough to establish the difficulty of any public epistemology. If it has done the latter, no one has received the memo.
Personally, I think the reason for this is because “science” isn’t one thing. There are a collection of methodologies behind sociological phenomena of science, each with their own, unique epistemic benefits and drawbacks. Rather than trying to establish what science is or isn’t, philosophy of science should be reclassifying endeavors according to methodology, and examining methodologies for their epistemic import.
If we did that, then we could officially separate the sociological phenomena of science from the epistemic phenomena, and be more clear as to why certain claims have certain public import while other claims may be less clear. By continually shoehorning all of this into a single term, “science,” it prevents clear thinking on the subject.
Of course, there will always be those who try to overstate the weight and implications of their evidence. However, at least if there were a thorough classification of methodologies and the reasons for why they indicate what they indicate, people would have a better grasp of the concepts needed to refute invalid claims.