Having floated the problem of legitimate authority the other day, it is worth considering some of the things that make an authority legitimate. And in that regard, few things in the world are supposed to occupy the role of legitimate authority to the extent that science does. So what is science, and what lends it the weight we justifiably give it?
Well, the first and most important thing to recognize is that science is not a body of pronouncements nor a collection of “facts”; rather, it is a self-correcting method of inquiry. From the foregoing, we can see that, qua “method of inquiry,” science is essentially a process, not a product. And qua “self-correcting,” we can see that the process is one of constant test and re-examination where previous conclusions are themselves treated as only provisional and subjected to renewed critique and inquiry.
This description is rather vague, and one can see that it does not distinguish science from any everyday form of reasoned inquiry. (For a discussion of such inquiry, one might look at John Dewey’s How We Think.) And indeed, this is exactly correct. Science is simply ordinary reasoned inquiry refined to a higher degree of logical rigor and observational acuity than what is practiced in everyday life.
However, ordinary inquiries tend to stop and be satisfied with whatever proximate results provide workable solutions to the immediate problem in hand. The self-correcting aspect of science, on the other hand, means that it must continue forward with the process of critique and test.
Thus, for example, this process of critique neither begins nor ends with passing the hurdles into publication at a peer-reviewed journal. The critique begins when the research is shared in preliminary form with others whose demonstrated legitimate authority on the subject at hand makes them valuable sources of insight with regard to both the method and the conclusions. And after the publication – assuming the research is solid enough to pass the opening peer-review process! – the process of review and critique becomes even more intense as the published material is exposed to the examining eyes of the entire body of the professional discipline. This round of criticism can go on for a very long time, depending on the significance of the claims asserted by the published research.
In addition, one of the things that will make that research significant is the fact that IT MIGHT BE WRONG. Scientific inquiry risks something, which tends not to happen with non- &/or pseudo-scientific claims. The philosopher Karl Popper is most famously associated with this observation, arguing that the primary distinguishing factor in genuinely scientific research is that it is “falsifiable.” The fact that some physically &/or logically possible collection of systematic observations &/or tests could prove a theory false means that said theory is both logically and empirically robust. Contemporary science and practice has revealed Popper’s original formulations to be deeply problematic: an overwhelming preponderance of contemporary science is essentially statistical in nature making it shockingly difficult to identify what such a “ possible collection of systematic observations &/or tests” might look like. Nevertheless, Popper’s falsification criterion remains a central tenet of scientific inquiry, even if it stands as an ideal that can only be aimed at but never concretely achieved.
Finally, it is worth noting that science distinguishes itself by the kinds of facts it aims to uncover. The “logic of inquiry” that one employs as a scientist is not fundamentally different from that used by an engineer, a technician, or even a philosopher (and this author speaks with experiential authority about those last two.) But the application of that “logic” is differentiated by its aim and direction. We might classify things with the following fast and loose criteria:
A scientist is someone who engages in forms of inquiry that aim to discover new, fundamental facts.
An engineer is someone who engages in forms of inquiry that aim to discover new applications for previously discovered facts.
A technician is someone who engages in forms of inquiry that aim to maintain existing applications.
The logic in all three modes of inquiry in the above is essentially the same. Yet it is clear from the above that the three forms of inquiry are fundamentally different. One lesson to be learned from the above is that Medical Doctors are not (except in vanishingly few instances) scientists; rather, they are almost always technicians. The fact that the “existing application” is something as staggeringly complex as the human body does not change the fact that a physicians principle job is maintaining that application. Some medical doctors have taken the additional step of earning a research Ph.D., and have indeed earned the title of “scientist.” But that title is due to their research Ph.D., not their medical practice.
One last reckless word might be offered about that mode of inquiry known as “philosophy.” Such a word might be offered, and it certainly would be reckless. For example,
A philosopher is someone who engages in forms of inquiry that aim to discover, deepen and invent modes of inquiry and interpretation that relate to the entire expanse of human experience.
There is a certain initial satisfaction to be found in the above gloss, but it scarcely survives even casual examination. How does #4 distinguish a philosopher from an artist of any kind? The distinction may itself be an entirely aesthetic one, in which case only a very poor artisan would attempt to reduce it to a simplistic formula.