What is Science? Them ol’ hypo-deductive blues: Part I

What is science? There is no short answer. It is not, as some, even some scientists, claim just this:

(1) Look at the world and find some question to ask.
(2) Form a testable, falsifiable hypothesis that can be experimentally formulated and you can control most of the variables.
(3) Run the experiment.
(4) Accept or Reject the hypothesis.
(5) Publish the result.

This is called the hypo-deductive method (HDM). You betcha, it can be a part of science, but is certainly not sufficient or necessary to science. It is many a creationist’s idea of science though. It lets them, they imagine, to claim that evolution is not a science. If it can’t be done in a test-tube sort of experiment it ain’t science. They need to say that because science as brought about some truly awesome advances. So if they can say that evolution is not a science then they can place it in the same camp as, say UFOology. Conversely, if they can smuggle ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) into the science camp they get to claim its legitimacy. (And it is fun to watch the very same groups trying to delist evolution as a science and A-list ID. It’s like watching the proverbial monkeys trying to get their fist out of the jar while holding onto the nut.)

The claim that HDM is science is sort of like saying running a bow across a violin is an orchestral work. It may play a part, and it even may play an important part for some pieces, but it takes more (or less) than running a bow across a violin to make such a work of symphonic magic.

But what is science? It turns out not to be an easy question. Why for example do we call Astronomy a science but not Astrology? What marks the boundary between a science and a non-science? This is called the ‘demarcation problem,’ coined by an influential philosopher of science named Karl Popper. There are genuinely some boundary issues here. Why is ‘Intelligent Design out’ and ‘looking for a God-module in the brain’ in?

Let’s see if we can begin to form a better understanding of what science is. We will make a start by looking at sort of an anthropology of scientists and explore what scientists do. This will form a beginning salvo in exploring the question. Then we will see if we can glean any principles that will give us a stab at the demarcation problems. By the end of this you should have a feel for why we can dismiss ID. We should also have a feel for why a strict materialism should be embraced in science, even by scientists who believe in God (and there are many)?

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18 Responses to What is Science? Them ol’ hypo-deductive blues: Part I

  1. Joseph Smidt says:

    I know I will be viewed as an extremist, but:

    To me it is ironic you would mention Karl Popper and then suggest, at least I think you are, that we can’t define what it means to be scientific when “Popper asserted that a hypothesis, proposition, or theory is scientific only if it is falsifiable.” (Wikipedia.)

    That’s it. No more and no less. It is that simple. (Again, I understand I will be viewed as an extremist, but I believe Popper and I am on the same page here.)

    “Why for example do we call Astronomy a science but not Astrology?”

    For this very reason. I understand it may be viewed as unsatisfactory, but I believe the consensus among most scientists is that Popper is right.

    “It lets them, they imagine, to claim that evolution is not a science.”

    I don’t understand how this can be. Intelligent design is the idea that is not falsifiable, not evolution. Evolution is plenty falsifiable and therefore plenty scientific.

    Now, again sorry if I seem to be taking an extreme tone here, but, I think if you *do not* follow Popper’s quote above you run into all types of problems: Astrology, Intelligent Design, etc… all have the same fundamentalist problem, they do not make predictions that are both testable and falsifiable at the same time.

    Now, I agree there is more, as you mentioned with the orchestra example, but like the orchestra example: this is ultimately what science boils down to.

  2. Joseph Smidt says:

    By the way, I want to say I am not as rigid as I sound. I am very open minded that science may be more than what I have advanced I think it is. I would like to see a good discussion on this issue and really respect what others think.

    I only am defensive because I believe I fear that science, by any other definition is dangerous. You could have theories people buy into that never go away because they are not falsifiable.

    Thanks for having this discussion.

  3. Rob Osborn says:

    Let’s cut right to the chase here because it seems you have some miguided notions yourself about definitions and semantics.

    The whole Id/Evolution debate is done so through the science of biological science. Evolution and ID are theories within the realm of biological science to perhaps explain- 1. how life perpetuates, 2. it’s history, and 3.it’s beginning.

    Both ID and Evolutionary theories set out hypothesis to understand and test those three criteria.

    The problem however is that the debate has become very political with the war of words, how words are defined and used, what is part of a viable theory and what is not, and forth and so on, and on, and on…

    What we really need to ask is if ID as a theory fits into biological science. Many falsly accuse ID as a religious or faith based propaganda machine to promote the Bible, which of coarse is incorrect. So how did ID come about? Let’s ask someone qualified, someone who helped develop this scientific theory. Here are Dr. Meyer’s words (Stephen C. Meyer, Scientist and graduate of Cambridge University)-

    “The modern theory of intelligent design was not developed in response to a legal setback for creationists in 1987. Instead, it was first proposed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by a group of scientists – Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley and Roger Olson – who were trying to account for an enduring mystery of modern biology: the origin of the digital information encoded along the spine of the DNA molecule. Thaxton and his colleagues came to the conclusion that the information-bearing properties of DNA provided strong evidence of a prior but unspecified designing intelligence. They wrote a book proposing this idea in 1984, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision (Edwards v. Aguillard) that outlawed the teaching of creationism…..Contemporary scientific interest in the design hypothesis not only predates the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against creationism, but the formal theory of intelligent design is clearly different than creationism in both its method and content. The theory of intelligent design, unlike creationism, is not based upon the Bible. Instead, it is based on observations of nature which the theory attempts to explain based on what we know about the cause and effect structure of the world and the patterns that generally indicate intelligent causes. Intelligent design is an inference from empirical evidence, not a deduction from religious authority.

    Clearly then, ID is a theory in science to explain the phenomenon of intelligence in nature. Evolutionary theory also trys to explain this, thus they are both a valid and viable part of the biological sciences. Now as to what is seen to be actually “viable” is completely political with both sides deeply entrenched.

    Let me just say that ID as part of science is going to be around for a long long time, get used to it.

  4. Stan says:

    I thought science was defined by what you see in the science section at the local Barnes & Noble. Like the “Quantum Theory for Dummies” book I just bought. It has calculus and diffeq’s and…it’s..for..dummies. Right. It’s a nice trophy for my bookshelf.

    Anyway, leaving the obvious falsifiability problems of ID for you non-dummies to take on, let’s ask something a little closer to home to Mr. Smidt for some real spice. What is falsifiable about string theory? I admit I’ve been out of the loop for a while, but I recall some rumblings about the validity of string theory as a science. When does a non-falsifiable (with today’s technology) but theoretically interesting idea fall to the fringe? What keeps it alive? Is it the promise that someday technology my allow for some real experiments?

    Would Einstein’s papers have been considered real science in the dark ages before powerful telescopes, fast satellites with atomic clocks and bullet trains at a distance from my train platform? =:)

    Ok, back to the ID problem now that I’ve set the table. I suppose there is a difference between ‘not falsifiable no how not now and never will be’ and ‘not falsifiable yet’. How do you tell the difference? Is there a difference between these two statements…

    – Complexity can only come from a designer.

    – All matter is comprised of vibrating p-branes several million times smaller than can be detected.

    To me one is absurd the other is extremely interesting and promising. What does cold unbiased science say?

  5. Rob Osborn says:


    I do know in theoretical physics that “time travel” is part of that science. So, why is time travel part of science in physics when clearly it should just be science fiction? No one has actually traveled back or forward in time, all they have done is been able to slow clocks down on speeding planes.

    It seems that which is “scientific” is often times more science-fiction than real science.

  6. Joseph Smidt says:

    “What is falsifiable about string theory?” Wow, so much needs to be written about this to do it justice so a full blown answer will have to wait for later as it is complicated.

    1. As it exists today, all testable predictions of string theory are out of the reach of humans. However, at least there are predictions that are testable, just really hard to test.

    2. One difference between string theory and something like relativity is the theories those were complete before people demanded predictions. Einstein worked on General Relativity for over a decade before he published his final equations that were used to make predictions. String theory is still not complete so it, in some sense, is pre-mature to pass judgment just yet.

    3. However, if string theory is not falsifiable, it is not science. Even string theorists admit that. Every one I know concedes that if the final version of the theory isn’t falsifiable than it should not be considered a scientific theory.

    4. People need to decided whether it is worth being patient for the final theory to be worked out before passing judgment or not.

    5. However, most physicists do not give string theory as hard of a time as the media because worst case scenario: string theory isn’t a scientific theory but a treasure trove of mathematical tools. The mathematical tools coming from it are starting to be used to solve many problems before thought impossible. (Problems in superconductivity, etc…)

    6. #5 is my personal favorite. There are some near impossible problems in physics where the tools coming from string theory will finally crack.

    7. #5 does not make string theory a scientific theory and no physicist on earth will deny that. It’s either falsifiable, or not a scientific theory.

  7. SteveP says:

    “That’s it. No more and no less. It is that simple.”

    Popper’s falsifiablity is not the end of the story. It is a part, an important part, but more needs to be said about how we get at falsifiablity. Getting falsifiablity has proved tricky and in need of more nuanced development in how it plays out in scientific progresses. The weakness of Popper’s simplistic account will become apparent as I continue with this. I’m not dissing Popper and he played a huge roll in philosophy of science, but we’ve moved past him.

    Rob, everything you say is misinformed. There are too many misconceptions to even attempt to address, and I don’t think you are really interested in changing you mind so I won’t attempt it. It’s clear you are reading only one side of the ID story. Explore this blog site in more detail, especially look at the books I’e recommended here. I’ve dealt with ID ad nauseum. Everyone you quote are ID insiders and are wrong.

    String theory is interesting because it achieves remarkable coherence (there was a recent paper in Philosophy of Science on how remarkable and surprising this level of coherence is). It’s testable, but we are several years away from those tests.

    I like string theory and would vote for it if it appeared in a beauty contest.

  8. Joseph Smidt says:

    “The weakness of Popper’s simplistic account will become apparent as I continue with this.”

    Excellent, I am happy to stay tuned.

  9. Rob Osborn says:


    Misinformed? You have got to be kidding. I felt it in my best interest to actually quote from a noted author and scientist who has helped develop ID as a real theory.

    If I let you evolutionists decide what ID is all about you would leave the general masses completely misinformed of the truth!

  10. SteveP says:

    “devoloped ID as a real theory”

    That’s laughable. Could you name a biological explanation or prediction it’s made? One published article? (Don’t quote Demski’s information theory article it has zero biology.) Oh yeah, I forgot it’s a conspiracy among biologists that won’t let them in the club. That’s for sure. We require science be done.

  11. Rob Osborn says:

    Hum, let’s see. the biological explanation that deducts that DNA is a code- a type of inteligent design. Hows that for starters.

    You need to remember that ID is a science that also detects intelligence in the universe and nature. When ID scientists scientifically document intelligence, they are observing their theory.

  12. Rob Osborn says:

    A prediction ID has made is a continuing prediction that no new species will be derived from mutations- that each species will continue to reproduce after it’s kind. So far that prediction is true.

  13. Tim says:

    ID has made that prediction? Really? That sounds more like a young-earth creationist claim than an ID claim. I think ID is crap, but apparently I still understand ID better than you do…
    All I’d have to do to create a brand new species is to destroy most of the populations in a rassenkreis. The mutations are already there. A natural or man-made disaster is all it would take.
    It’s interesting to see how people who claim they’re IDers end up being old-fashioned creationists instead.

  14. SteveP says:

    Tim, Rob does not undertand ID. He thinks ID is intellegence in the universe or something.

    Rob, again you are just showing you haven’t read anything about it at all. Arguments from ignorance arn’t going to fly. And by the by ID scientists have not scientifically documented anything, they have books on the level of UFOology. They’ve published nothing Rob. Nothing. Did you look up Troll?

  15. Jared* says:

    I like Philip Kitcher’s characteristics of independent testability, unification, and fecundity (described here).

    The leading critics of ID have not said that ID is not–and never can be–science. Rather, they have said that it is not YET science.

  16. Jeff G says:

    Yeah, Kuhn pretty much “falsified” Popper’s theory about as convincingly as one could ever hope it to be.

    While the former didn’t show the latter to be absolutely wrong, he did show falsifiability to fall far short of solving the demarcation problem.

  17. Allen says:

    This post is off topic, and I’m making it so I can pass a link to Rob and any others interested in reproduction “after their kind”. The link is to a post in my blog and explains why I think evolution is compatible with the scriptural concept of plants and animals reproducing after their kind. The post is written from the viewpoint of the scriptures and does not attempt to say anything about evolution or science.

    Anyone wishing to comment on this is invited to do so in my blog, thus keeping this thread on topic.

  18. David H Bailey says:

    With regards to Rob Osborn’s assertions:

    New species *have* been observed — for instance, a certain species of salamander in California is noticeably different from one end of its habitat to the other, and specimens from the two ends cannot interbreed. Numerous other examples could be cited.

    Beneficial mutations *have* been observed. Bacteria, for instance, have re-acquired the ability to metabolize lactase, even after the genes that permit this are removed. Certain people in Italy have a genetic mutation (originating with a single individual 200 years ago) that endows them with significantly better cardiovascular health. Many other examples ciykd been cited.

    DNA analysis does not support ID. It overwhelmingly supports evolution. See, for instance, the new book by Daniel Fairbanks (a well-known LDS biologist): “Relics of Eden”.

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