The following essay is discussion on the 2011 DoSER Holiday Lecture, presented by physicists Ian Hutchinson and Lisa Randall. Dr. Hutchinson, a plasma physicist, is a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. Dr. Randall, a theoretical physicist, is a professor of physics at Harvard University.
“What is science?” Hutchinson asked at the beginning of his talk, and what role does it play in society? He offered a provocative illustration of the authoritative role of science in the modern world, particularly in the media. For instance, BBC News announced a discovery with the headline, “Indian language is new to science.” Though this claim may seem innocuous, Hutchinson pointed out, “Since when have languages been science? In my view, they never have been.” This headline is a product of a popular notion that science is the only source of real knowledge, something that Hutchinson views as a fundamental misunderstanding. Accordingly, his first step in addressing the evening’s central theme was to establish an accurate definition of science.
Hutchinson explained that science contains two essential characteristics, “reproducibility” and “clarity.” Scientists explore aspects of the world that that they can repeat under carefully controlled experimental conditions. In some research fields, like astronomy or historical geology, one may not be able to reproduce a particular event in a laboratory so these scientists rely on numerous observations and measurements of very similar phenomena. Using these techniques, scientists rely on a multiplicity of cases to help them overcome the error that may result from observing any individual event.
The other defining characteristic of science, which Hutchinson describes as “clarity,” is to provide unambiguous descriptions of results in a mechanical or mathematical form. The value of this strategy is that these explanations can be universalized-making them independent of any researcher’s language, culture, place, or time.
Hutchinson then noted that many forms of intellectual inquiry, such as history, philosophy, sociology, political science, legal studies, and religion, lack one or both of these characteristics. Therefore, it is inappropriate to label any of them as “science.” Nevertheless, Hutchinson insisted that just because something isn’t “science” doesn’t mean that it’s not capable of producing reliable knowledge. In fact, there are other rigorous, dependable methodologies that are more appropriate for other fields of scholarly inquiry.