General Question

ninjacolin's avatar

What is Science good for exactly? Please articulate.

Asked by ninjacolin (14238points) January 25th, 2012

I think the question is pretty straight forward.

Technically, what does Science help us to do?
What are its short-comings, if any?

Go ahead and get specific if possible.

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47 Answers

LostInParadise's avatar

Science is a methodology for understanding the world. The approach is rather common sensical. Observe, hypothesize, test hypothesis, publish the result, have others confirm results. Science has made it possible to understand the world and to create inventions that make life easier and extend our capabilities. In and of itself, science has no shortcomings. It is morally neutral. The only problems that arise are due to those who prefer to ignore reality in favor of mythology. This is not a fault of science but of humanity.

gorillapaws's avatar

The shortcomings of science is that it’s a tool that’s limited to testing falsifiable claims. This means it works great for the things it’s designed to deal with, and doesn’t work at all for things beyond it’s scope. Many people fail to appreciate this distinction, and it’s certainly the cause for a lot of mistrust of science.

Nullo's avatar

I don’t think that you can really say that science is ‘good for’ anything. It’s an effort to reverse-engineer the blueprint of the Universe.
Now, application… That’s where it gets really interesting.

YARNLADY's avatar

Humans have been asking who, what, where, why and how ever since the dawn of time. Science is merely the communication tool we use to answer those questions.

saint's avatar

Science is a method for recognizing the facts of reality so that we can more accurately and reliably assign to those facts the conceptual label of truth.
It seems to be in the metaphysical nature of Man to be curious, so part of the existence of science is simply a reflection of that characteristic.
Plus the ability to separate fact from fantasy is essential for survival to a creature with a consciousness that processes sensory input into abstractions. Except for basic subcortical functions and peripheral reflexes, human beings are not hard wired to interact with their environment. The cerebral cortex imparts the extra step of volition which precedes voluntary action. This requires some basis for that action, and to mortal creatures, the choices have relevant consequences. Thus science serves a moral purpose as well.

flutherother's avatar

Science is like scratching an itch, it gives relief to curiosity. It is an instinct for survival as the more we know the better our chances of survival but it doesn’t tell us why we should want to survive.

JLeslie's avatar

Science helps us understand ourselves and the universe. Without medical science we would die younger. Without curiosity regarding how things work and scientific methods to prove or disprove hypothesis we would not have electricity, safer cars, an understanding of how our own bodies work, how nature interacts and the balance it seeks.

Vincentt's avatar

Defining science is, in itself, a problem already. A shortcoming is that it is really hard to do well, and to tell when a scientific result is actually reliable. Explaining why a certain scientific result is better than mythology or whatever is a very difficult job as well. Furthermore, the way the world works provides incentive to not always do science like it should be done (e.g. there’s always a bias towards trying to confirm a hypothesis).

Apart from that, it has served us pretty well up till now.

Response moderated (Personal Attack)
marinelife's avatar

Science helps us invent new technologies, such as cell phones, computers, etc.

Science helps us invent new medicines and cures for diseases.

Science helps us better understand the world around us.

Paradox25's avatar

The word science came from the word scientia, which was Latin for knowledge. In the most simple definition science essentially means everything that exists and attempting to understand how everything we’re aware of that exists works/functions.

To me nothing is outside of science since I don’t believe in transcendental concepts. If God, dualism, the paranormal and the afterlife exist than these phenomena would be a part of science to me, not outside of it.

Anything related to science has benefits for us because science is all about understanding everything such as disease, injuries, illness, energy consumption, transportation, political history, sociology, psychology, etc. Obviously the more we understand about many things the better off we will be. Some technology is obviously very dangerous in the wrong hands and of course there are negatives as well that can be associated with science. Science realistically is everything that exists so of course it’s important.

wundayatta's avatar

Unfortunately, this question is all too necessary these days. People, even people who think they know what they are talking about, don’t really understand what science is.

It is, very simply, a method. It is a method for creating knowledge. We use this method because it allows other people to have confidence in the knowledge we claim to have created. It is a method that makes it easy to correct mistakes, which is important, because people who use the scientific method make lots of mistakes.

It is important to remember that all knowledge is suspect. It is possible that such well-accepted theories as gravity could be mistaken. If it is, sooner or later, we will catch it if we use the scientific method properly.

The method is based on the idea that if you do the same thing over and over, and the results are the same every single time, then your theory that the two events are connected in a causal way is likely to reflect reality most or even all the time. In social science, things are a little fuzzier, because you can argue a theory is true even if events are connected in a specific way only 60% or 40% or some percent that is greater than by chance.

It might be interesting to look at science in terms of other ways of creating knowledge. People like to make stuff up, for example. Science has a method for evaluating claims of knowledge that covers that. You have to be able to duplicate any form of evidence used to support a claim of knowledge. If it can’t be reproduced, then scientists are doubtful.

However, there are some ways of creating knowledge that are inherently not reproducible. Personal experience, for example. I can say I felt a rain drop, and you might believe me because you feel rain drops, but you can never know for sure that your experience is the same as mine.

However, most people reason that if we describe our experiences in the same way, then we are probably feeling the same thing. We might then suggest that other internal experiences also have reality, even if we don’t experience the same thing. So, for example, a person might say that God spoke to them, and if you were inclined, and maybe if you had a similar experience, you would be willing to say that God is real.

A scientist would have difficulty with this because there is nothing that could be measured in a concrete way. All we have are multiple reports of an experience. And though many people report the experience, not all do. Not all seem to be capable of the experience. What does this mean?

We could come up with any number of hypotheses. We might hypothesize that people’s brains are different, and that the experience of “God” is a function of brain architecture. We might hypothesize that it is not the same experience, but people use the same word for convenience. We might hypothesize that the experience is real, but God does not choose to make himself visible to all people.

In science, you need to devise a way of testing each of these hypotheses to see if you can find any evidence to support them. The more supporting evidence, the more likely it is that other scientists will be willing to accept that there is sufficient evidence to consider the hypothesis to be true—that is; to accurately reflect the reality of the world in such a way that it makes it possible to make accurate predictions about the behavior of the thing being studied.

Now others—not scientists—have different standards for evidence. My theory is that most people are willing to accept that if a million people experience God, God must exist. Only the truly skeptical are willing to stand up against social pressure and maintain agnosticism when they do not think there is sufficient evidence. Even fewer would be willing to stand up against the vast majority and insist that since there is no very compelling evidence of God, that means that the overwhelming likelihood is that there is no God, A person who truly uses the scientific method will be skeptical of claims of impossibility. “An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” goes the catch phrase.

But most people do believe in personal testimony. They trust that others are similar enough to them that claims of internal experience can be considered as legitimate evidence for something real. Personal experiences inside the mind can be very moving, and it can be very difficult to remain skeptical about them when they affect you so powerfully. So I think most people accept these internal experiences; these unverifiable experiences; as evidence of the reality of something.

So that’s another way that people create knowledge. It has different rules than science. It has different standards than the scientific method. It is a kind of majority rules, mass hysteria, go along with the crowd form of knowledge and when I say that, you can see the problems with that knowledge. If you use the scientific method, you do not need to believe in anything. You can always be skeptical. Other ways of creating knowledge require belief. They do not stand on their own.

Ironically, it was religion that supported science and indeed, still supports it. But then science discovered some things that seemed to hurt religious truths, and the conflict between science and religion bloomed. Thus we have come to a point where many people suspect science. It seems elitist and difficult to understand and people are afraid scientists are doing things to them that they don’t want done.

So religion becomes a bulwark against these fears. It is a protection against the unknown. And then we get into trouble, mostly due to our fears of what we don’t know and to our misunderstandings about what others who claim expertise are doing. If scientists know so much, can they be trusted to do what’s best for us?

Of course, they can’t. They are human and their choices are not necessarily ours. So there is a built-in tension between people who know a lot and people who don’t know so much. A mistrust.

Science is good for creating knowledge. Science can not answer all questions of knowledge. That is because humans are not able to figure out everything all at once. We have to keep working out it. Science, really, is only a method. It helps us build knowledge. But the knowledge we make is not usually enough for us to gain any certainty about future courses of action. So we always have to make choices, and in that, there will always be room for conflict.

Charles's avatar

It’s good for showing how ridiculous religion is.

wundayatta's avatar

It’s also good for understanding what religion is.

And in fact, it is not good for showing how ridiculous religion or anything else is. Science does not make judgments about silliness or ridiculousness or anything. People do that. And people insult each other at their peril.

Charles's avatar

It’s also good for understanding what religion is.

I agree. I think psychiatrists and psychologists and sociologists have pretty good theories as to why humans accept the delusions of spirituality.

Science does not make judgments about silliness or ridiculousness or anything.

Science and Biblical Inaccuracies

Qingu's avatar

Science is the only useful method for understanding the world around us.

By understanding the world around us, we can invent technologies that save lives—for example, the entire history of medicine.

Science also leads to technologies that improve our lives in almost every way imaginable, beyond medicine. Science underpins all technologies of communication. It therefore helps spread ideas and artwork far and wide. It also knits human society closer together. You would not be able to even ask this question, and we would not be able to have this discussion, without knowledge of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, materials science, and information science.

Moreover, science enriches art and the human experience by expanding our frontiers. Early humans lived in a tiny world ruled by petty deities. They thought the sky was a solid object. They thought stars were little lamps set in the dome of the sky. They had no knowledge of outer space or other worlds. Nor did they have much knowledge of their own world. They knew nothing of plants and animals beyond their immediate surroundings. They knew nothing of the bizarre life forms that live under the ocean, and they certainly knew nothing of the entire universe of microscopic organisms that lived right beneath (and on) their fingers. They knew nothing of DNA, of molecules and atoms. And up until the 1900’s nobody knew that these supposedly “indivisible” atoms had a nucleus that contained an almost unimaginable amount of energy.

So I don’t even understand how this is a question. Would you want to go back to the time when we knew nothing about any of these things, and lived in societies ruled by superstition and ignorance?

Nullo's avatar

@Charles The link that you posted serves only to underscore the difference in paradigms. It is, in short, “Science says this and Bibles say that, and we’re science so we win.” Not terribly sound.

wundayatta's avatar

@Charles That was not a scientific paper. That was a political polemic. It was designed to make people feel stupid. The scientific method is designed to keep emotions out of it. That may have reported science, but it wasn’t science.

Qingu's avatar

@Nullo, science says the sky is made of gas and fades into the vacuum of space.

The Bible says the sky is a solid dome that God created to hold up the above-sky ocean, and it has windows which he opened to let down the floodwaters.

Can you walk me through your logic in deciding which paradigm you believe?

Nullo's avatar

@Qingu Not offhand, since I don’t typically keep my thoughts in words while they’re in my head. You and I have done this enough now that I know that you are more interested in being adversarial than anything else, so I see no point in me expending the effort.
Suffice to say that I think you’re reading into the text.

Qingu's avatar

The text:

And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky.
In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth for forty days and forty nights.

See, this paradigm makes perfect sense to me, and the text is pretty clear. I don’t think it’s true, but I don’t think I’m misinterpreting it.

ninjacolin's avatar

Thanks for all the responses! You all sound a like a bunch of over-enthusiastic grade schoolers with their hands up shouting all the wrong answers. lol. Good stuff.

Why ask?
@tedd, the question isn’t a joke. It’s something that’s been on my mind for the last 2 months or so. There really is a lot of Science denial that goes on. There’s also a lot of Science-side-stepping where people seem to say Science is great in one case, and then it’s not so great in other cases. So, I wanted to get specific and find out what different minds have to say about it when given the chance.

I had a big fight with a creationist and also with a conspiracy theorist on another forum and lately I’ve been trying to force into our debates the examination of what Science is really for. I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but there’s real value to Science which some people assume has an end. As in, “Science is good up to this point.” In my mind, however, I don’t think there is a point where Science loses it’s value/usefulness and when some other method of problem solving has to be employed. @wundayatta and @Paradox25 both touched on it, even decisions and beliefs concerning the so-called “supernatural” seem to be reached using quite normal Scientific means but many of these people don’t recognize that they are still using Science to form their erroneous conclusions. Specifically, I would say they’ve switched to Poor Science, perhaps, but still the approach is the same.

Anyway, I think it’s an important question somehow. So, here’s my childish attempt to scream out a potentially useless and incomplete answer:

What is Science good for?
I think Science is good for creating verifiable and communicable evidence.

When people agree on a destination, they tend to take the same road. Science is good at unifying destinations across disparate minds.

Know what I mean?

HungryGuy's avatar

Science is the art of understanding the laws of matter and energy so that we can then use engineering to to make tools that make our lives easier, more comfortable, more enjoyable, and longer lived.

Rarebear's avatar

If you didn’t have science, you couldn’t have posted this question.

ninjacolin's avatar

I don’t really think Science is “good at” inventing things. I think that’s something imagination is good at.

I’m gonna try again: What is Science good at? (or for)

Science (aka. The Scientific Method) is good for testing claims for accuracy.

For example the claim: “Cat cuteness raises your mood.”

With science you can devise a system for testing whether or not this claim is worded in an accurate way.

I wish I could word this better.

I really think the vast majority of people have an overly complex expectation for the value of Science. I’m sure we can simplify it to a sentence or two.

talljasperman's avatar

@ninjacolin How about keeping people entertained, in school and out of trouble?

ninjacolin's avatar

Well, @talljasperman (sup mang!) I’ll critic your suggestion the way I like my suggestions critiqued:

Clearly over the years science has failed to entertain many people, including drop outs who often end up joining gangs. So, while science has certainly been good at entertaining, training and keeping SOME out of trouble, it can’t be said to be good at this universally.


YARNLADY's avatar

I hate when someone asks a question and then insults the people who answer.

ninjacolin's avatar

I love it!

But don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t actually insulting anyone. Just commenting on the experience. And hey, I included myself in the make-shift insult, promise!

The answers have all been really great! :)

mattbrowne's avatar

Being able to predict future events.

ninjacolin's avatar

@mattbrowne, Yea, it’s crazy good at that.

wundayatta's avatar

Really, @ninjacolin? Tell me, how close is that asteroid going to come to the earth? When, exactly, is the next solar storm going to occur? Where is the next magnitude 6 earthquake going to occur? Is this criminal going to stay out of jail if we put him in this program? Will this student make straight As in college? Should I invest in gold or oil? Should this company hire more geologists, or invest in a satellite?

Science can help make predictions a bit more accurate, but “crazy good” accurate? We have a long ways to go before I’d be willing to bet on that.

ninjacolin's avatar

Yea but they’re good at predicting even how bad their predictions might be!

A missile is a great example of our ability to predict. @wundayatta have you seen this on asteriods? One of the most entertaining talks.

wundayatta's avatar

I feel so comforted.

ninjacolin's avatar

lol, not sure if that’s genuine or sarcasm.

mattbrowne's avatar

@wundayatta – Science can give us a reasonably good idea about the accuracy of its predictions. Examples:

Exact time of next solar eclipse 99.99999999999%

Year of increased solar storms 70%

Day of solar storm < 0.1%

Likelihood of a > 6 magnitude earthquake in California in the next 50 years 99%

Day of next > 6 magnitude earthquake in California < 0.01%

And so forth.

ninjacolin's avatar

And Science isn’t static. It’s never “done” as yet.
Each earthquake that hits teaches Science something new. It keeps learning more and more and maybe 300 years from now we’ll know exactly when every earthquake will be via some new amazing technology.

So, on that note.. Science is good at improving on itself.

LostInParadise's avatar

@ninjacolin , One interesting aspect of science that came up in the 20th century is that science points to built-in limits to what we can do.

Nothing goes faster than light.

Precision in determining position can only be obtained by sacrificing precision in measuring momentum. Combined with the butterfly effect, that means we will never be able to predict weather more than about a week in advance.

Godel showed the limits of mathematical systems.

There is also an interesting philosophical debate regarding emergence

ninjacolin's avatar

You know they’ve found, tested, and retested the apparent fact that Neutrinos travel faster than light in the past 5 or 6 months, right? :)
Let me know if there’s been an update that I wasn’t informed about.

LostInParadise's avatar

I heard an interview with Stephen Hawking on this. He said that if anything goes faster than light then the theory of relativity is no longer valid. Hawking’s said that there needs to be further experimentation

ninjacolin's avatar

Such a weird thing. Again, it seems like Science is good at self-examination and improving on itself over time.

I agree @LostInParadise that Science seems to be pointing towards a law abiding universe. Laws which everything in it seems to be built on without exception.

mattbrowne's avatar

Science is self-correcting. Theories are in place until proved wrong. General relativity and quantum mechanics in their current forms can’t both be right for example.

LostInParadise's avatar

@ninjacolin , What I was trying to point out, though not very well, is that there has been a move in science away from reductionistic reasoning to holisitic. There are some interesting areas that have opened up like chaos theory, complexity theory and network theory that look at things from a more top down point of view. The concept of emergence is used to talk about how low level structures spontaneously organize into higher level structures that are easier to understand and manipulate.

wundayatta's avatar

@mattbrowne I totally agree that science can predict things and give a measure of the accuracy of the prediction. I totally disagree with @ninjacolin calling that “crazy good.”

For me, “crazy good” is one hundred percent accuracy in predicting an event to within an hour. Crazy good is something useful. Knowing there will be an earthquake in the next fifty years is not useful to me in terms of planning my day. It does, however, suggest I should have an emergency kit somewhere handy. Maybe in my car. Unless I park my car indoors.

ninjacolin's avatar

@wundayatta just because science isn’t good at predicting earthquakes YET.. doesn’t mean it never will be. Especially since Science is a growing, self-correcting, creature.

Until then, Science has definitely become “crazy good” at predicting some things that humans used to suck at predicting.

ninjacolin's avatar

@LostInParadise it sounds like you’re answering a similar but different question.. something like: What has Science been up to? or What has Science been hinting at lately? lol, pretty interesting. I’d have to look into some of those topics a bit more to see what that’s all about. I usually think holistic-type of stuff is a philosophy type of area.

LostInParadise's avatar

There has been a shift in the way that we look at science that has become a little more humanistic. At one time, someone might have said that biologists are not as hard core as chemists, who in turn were not as close to the core as physicists. Now the attitude is more that each level has its own laws which, while dependent on lower levels, take on a life of their own. For example, evolution depends on chemical processes, but can be discussed in terms far removed from chemistry. There is even an extreme view called strong emergence that claims that the higher levels of organization cannot even in principle be considered as resulting from the lower forms. This strikes me as a bit extreme.

As far as earthquakes go, we may never be able to predict with precision when and where the next one will occur due to the chaotic nature of the processes involved. We may, however, get better at giving statistical descriptions of potential earthquake activity over extended periods of time.

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