Minding the Sciences — What Is Science?

Why do we feel lied to when we are admonished to “Follow the Science”? Is it because “the Science” is herding us to energy suicide? For our own good, of course. Is it because “the Science” insists that the distinction between men and women is illusory, and enthusiastically backs up the delusion with stunning non sequiturs? If fungi have 57 sexes, why can’t humans have them too, you science denier? Do we feel lied to because “the Science” warns us about politicized science and misinformation, while peddling patently political nonsense? Red-hot rejoinders about “real” science versus “fake” science strafe the public square, to no one’s edification.

There seems to be something seriously rotten with modern science. But what, precisely, is wrong, and how can we set it right? Please indulge me as I share a personal anecdote.

When I was a biology professor, I often received invitations to judge local science fairs, which I usually accepted, because judging science fairs is a lot of fun. There were always the predictable cobbled-together-the-night-before entries, trivial “experiments” (which soap do my friends like best?), and tongue-tied adolescents whose parents clearly had done most of the work for them. Such students were obviously not destined for careers in science, but so what? Few people are, and they at least made for an amusing way to spend a Saturday morning. Usually mixed in, however, were a few bright sparks, students who actually had the potential to become scientists. Finding such students is the whole point of science fairs, after all.

One year, one of the bright sparks was a twelve-year-old girl whose project was about paleontology, specifically the fossils of the Niagara Escarpment. This formation runs east to west across upstate New York: Niagara Falls exists because the waters of the Niagara River tumble over the escarpment. Along its length, sediments of different geological periods are exposed, which are reflected in different fossils. Put together the fossils with the different ages of the sediments, and you get a rough picture of the evolution of life long ago.1

The girl’s project consisted of a diorama of fossils collected at different locations along the escarpment, which she displayed with commentary about the geology and paleontology. What struck me was the girl’s enthusiasm, persistence, and curiosity, essential qualities of a good scientist. She had studied the fossils and the geological periods. She had developed a systematic collection plan and had dragooned her father (who was not an academic) into driving her on the weekends to various locations all over the state so she could gather and photograph the fossils. She had maintained a detailed notebook, which she brought to her display. She had even looked into the legal issues surrounding fossil collecting. Truly, I thought, here was a scientist in embryo, worthy of all the encouragement we could give her.

[Related: “Death of a Science Academy”]

When it came time to judge the entries, I advocated a prize for her. To my surprise, my fellow judges (all academic scientists) said that would be impossible because the girl had disqualified herself. Why? She had not followed the “Scientific Method.” How so? She had not posed a null hypothesis. She had not carried out an experimental test. Because there was no test, she had no quantitative results to interpret. I asked: did that mean that paleontology—where no experiments are possible—could not be a science?

After a long (and collegial, let me add) discussion with my fellow judges about the nature of science, the decision boiled down to a technicality. The rules of the science fair demanded the scientific method—hypothesis, test, analysis, and interpretation—and it would be unfair to the other participants to reward a student who had not followed that rule. Case closed. Award denied. She lost.

I tell this story because it represents in microcosm the problem with modern science: it has become alienated from science itself. Define for me the “Science” we are all supposed to be following. The answers will generally come down to various razors that demarcate “science” from “non-science.” For example, science follows the scientific method. Anything that does not follow the scientific method is therefore non-science. Science is falsifiable: if it is not falsifiable, it is not science. Science is peer-reviewed. Science is the opposite of pseudoscience. Science is the consensus of scientists. And so on. On the one side is science, and on the other non-science. You can now see the problem. All can serve to define science, yet, paradoxically, none can. Those dividing lines are not objective distinctions—they are set by the same arbitrary and uninformed rules that disqualified my incipient paleontologist.

This muddled state of affairs has come about because modern science has become institutionalized, bureaucratized, beset on all sides by rules that have little meaningful to say about the endeavor of science, how it is done, and how it progresses. The result has been politicized science, an instrument for something it was never intended to be, to wit: just another special interest jockeying for its place at the public trough. Lacking any clear idea of what science is, our public policies for supporting science—multi-hundred-billion-dollar government spending programs, essentially—are likely to wander off into dark alleys where science can be shanghaied by power. The best defense against that is clarity on what science is.

Science makes a distinct claim on how to make sense of the world. Art and theology also strive to make sense of the world, so the question boils down to where the distinction lies. Unlike art and theology, science strives to coax answers from nature itself about its own nature. Unlike science, art and theology filter nature’s answers through personal perception and creative expression (art) or through the transcendent sense of the divine (theology). We may concoct a theology of the electron, for example, but when we do so, we are using the electron as a lens to clarify the nature of God. Science strives to peel those filters back so that the electron itself can tell us about itself. Allowing nature to speak for itself is arguably what makes science distinctive. Niels Bohr expressed it best, defining science as “the gradual removal of prejudices.”2

[Related: “Greenwashing a Famine”]

Bohr’s aphorism puts the scientific method (or, more accurately, the hypothetico-deductive method) in a properly humble place as but one tool for peeling away those layers of prejudice. Like all tools, it is useful in some circumstances, and not in others. By itself, the scientific method is a poor guide to what science is. The same can be said for any of the other lines that purportedly demarcate science from non-science. Bohr’s aphorism also opens the door to the fundamental similarity of science to “unscientific” modes of thought like art and theology: all are profound acts of creativity. Albert Einstein asked us to imagine riding along on a photon. August Kekulé dreamt of the benzene molecule as an ouroboros, a molecular snake eating its own tail. Charles Darwin called his theory of adaptive inheritance a “mad dream.”3 The polymerase chain reaction came to Kary Mullis out of the blue during a wine-fueled, late-night drive through the fragrant forests of northern California, his sleeping girlfriend beside him in the passenger seat.4

Embarrassed by such “unscientific” inspirations, scientists concoct fables to hide those messy dreams of reason behind drapes of scrupulous experimental methodology. The so-called scientific paper does not really describe science. It is a performance piece designed to hide the inchoate wanderings of scientists behind a façade of objectivity and linear thought. I often would tell students who were demanding answers and clarity that if you’re not stumbling around confused half the time, you’re not really doing science. This is because science is not driven by logic, or funding, or rules, but by the confusion that swirls around the creative act. This cannot be constrained by fences.

Yet, it is scientists themselves who can be the most ardent builders of philosophical fences. They do so because building fences is profitable. Our modern system of science funding provides the planks, posts, and nails, and rewards when fences are built. The business of modern science is now to spend public money to build more fences. No wonder science is no longer in the business of breakthroughs.5

Paradoxically, it is the generous public funding of science that has brought modern science to its present sorry state. At the end of World War II, we embarked on an experiment, centered on the hypothesis that the best way to promote science would be through federal subsidies for the basic sciences. That experiment has been a failure, growing prejudices at rates far faster than they can be culled. The experiment failed because its crafters did not give sufficient weight to the core proposition that science is fundamentally a creative endeavor. Science can only thrive in an atmosphere of near intellectual anarchy: the utmost freedom for scientists to think, to engage with their peers, to be wrong, and to take intellectual risks, unbound by fences. Bureaucrats, administrators, and politicians hate creativity because they cannot control it. They now run the show, so they call the tune.

The public funding of science has been a siren song. To bring science back, declare the experiment to be the failure that it is.


1 Grabau, A. W. and E. J. Letson (1901). Guide to the Geology and Paleontology of Niagara Falls and Vicinity, University of the State of New York.

2 Quoted in Rhodes, R. (2012). The Making of the Atomic Bomb: 25th Anniversary Edition, Simon & Schuster.

3 McComas, W. F. (2012). Darwin’s Invention: Inheritance & the “Mad Dream” of Pangenesis. The American Biology Teacher 74(2): 86-91.

4 Mullis, K. (2010). Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

5 Park, M., E. Leahey, et al. (2023). Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature 613(7942): 138-144.


Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a new Minding the Campus article series called Minding the Sciences, wherein we are renewing our focus on the sciences given the many threats it faces in modern academia. Click here to learn more.

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Author

  • J. Scott Turner

    J Scott Turner is Emeritus Professor of Biology at SUNY ESF in Syracuse, New York. He is the author of The Extended Organism: the Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (2000, Harvard University Press), and Purpose and Desire. What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (2017, HarperOne). He is presently Director of Science Programs at the National Association of Scholars.

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45 thoughts on “Minding the Sciences — What Is Science?

  1. Scott,
    The girl you described was not a Popperian but she appeared to be a good Kuhnian. Since she was chastised for not looking for the “Black Swan,” we must also call into question the work of Copernicus and Einstein. Does anyone have the statistical analyses and the respective P-values for Copernicus and Einstein’s work?

    You’re right if you suspect the bulge in my cheek is my tongue. Now putting my tongue to work, I will say we (scientists) have done it to ourselves by creating intellectual narrow-mindedness. We, scientists, have built an inflexible, but reproducible nonetheless, edifice on hypotheses, which some may justifiably argue are far from reality. At the same time, we fail to see what is staring us in the face, namely REALITY!

    1. Yes, falsifiability is one of those criteria that can define science, but can’t define science.
      Darwin was not a Popperian either, which led Popper once famously declaring Darwinism not to be a science. That earned him a fierce pushback from Neodarwinists, to the extent that Popper was mau-maued into retracting the claim. Personally, I think both were wrong.

  2. A good article! How about “Science is the process of increasing our understanding of the physical world through observation.” Includes both physical and social sciences.

    We have to separate Michael Mann’s science and his advocacy. As scientist, he did observe the physical world. But his advocacy for a political cause (not to mention his own pathologies!) led him to shady practices, showing a lack of personal integrity. So he’s a scientist, but a badly flawed human being.

    I am now an independent scholar but worked for decades in a Dept of Energy lab. Government funding is indeed a great corruptor. The funding agency can censor your work if they choose. Worse, they instill in scientists what Voltaire called conscience “Not the voice of God, but the fear of the police” [or at least loss of funding]. And though it’s harder to get my hands on others’ research than it used to be, it’s wonderful to be able to make small discoveries almost every day [and to be able to look myself in the mirror without cringing – well, not too much, anyway].

    1. Observation is the foundation, to be sure. But somehow, observation has to be accompanied by listening to what nature itself has to say about its own nature. That’s why I like Neils Bohr’s description of what science is.

  3. Interesting discussion. There are many problems with science now. Some derive from the idea that it is a profession, rather than a vocation, career motives vs. curiosity. Another big one comes from distorted incentives–the need for publication, intolerance for failure. The incentives drive conformity and the creation of niche subdisciplines that avoid competition. More details in my book:
    Staddon, J. Science in an age of unreason. (2022, Regnery Gateway)

    JS

    1. Profession versus vocation. Profound point. Newton followed a vocation. After Huxley, scientists followed a profession. The post-WWII expansion of science funding eventually wiped out following science as a vocation.

  4. ‘Science’ is, first and foremost, a word. Discussing what is or isn’t Science, or who’s doing it and who’s not, or whether it is corrupted, ruined, co-opted, etc., first requires that the ‘Science’ name tag is pinned to the proper lapels — an unsurprisingly arbitrary task.

    I tend to think of it as a method first, defined by a field-relevant, ‘soft’ set of Missouri styled show-me rules. Fossil girl was clearly ‘doing science’ in this view. The huge body of investigative pursuits that have vividly established relatively rapid global warming in association with two centuries of industrial and post-industrial human alterations to land, water and atmosphere are also, in my view, science.

    This is not capital-S Science as a reverable realm that ought to be owned and assessed by a doctoral elite, and kept clean of governmental money and commercial opportunism. It’s a fucking mess of executions — wondering, ideating, trying, and establishing. Science isn’t dying. It has exploded into countless facets of human operations. It is… winning.

    1. Small-S Science is still alive in our universities, but I’m afraid it’s being smothered under capital-S Science. I would agree that the process of Small-S Science is a “… mess of executions” that don’t really play by well-defined rules. But for it to win, it first has to survive, and we need a hard think about how to ensure that.

  5. “If you’re not stumbling around confused half the time, you’re not really doing science” from the article. I remember reading somewhere that General Groves wanted to strictly compartmentalize Oppenheimer’s team for security when Oppie’s solution was a very high level of “stumbling around” together until the GROUP found the answers. As a non-scientist that to me is the essence of what science means and not some paper format to satisfy ones peers.

    1. There’s a story about the Manhattan Project that I remember reading about long ago. It went something like this. Two very high people in the project — it may have been Szilard and someone else, but I don’t remember who — would spend day after day sitting in an office space and talking. Groves got upset about this and asked someone — I think it was Oppenheimer — why those two guys were wasting all their time just sitting around and yakking — rather than working on the bomb. Oppenheimer explained that they were indeed working very hard on the bomb. Groves was persuaded to calm down.

      Oppenheimer must have been very good to be able to deal successfully with a bunch of scientists, mainly physicists, not known for their humility or ability to follow orders — but also the military non-scientist operatives, with Groves at the top.

      The Manhattan Project and the entire scientific war effort were indeed immensely impressive. I remember well the deep impression this made on me when I learned about it as a boy.

      For quite a while it made me confident and enthusiastic about expansive government. It was only later that I learned that this was not typical of government endeavors.

      John Maynard Keynes spoke of “animal spirits” and their importance in the economy. Animal spirits were certainly on display in America during World War II.

      1. Oppenheimer was a fascinating character. I enjoyed American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb was also a fascinating look at the Manhattan Project.

  6. I published a pair of papers on this in World Medical and Health Policy over a decade ago.

    Avery GH. (2010) Scientific Misconduct: The Perversion of Scientific Evidence for Policy Advocacy. World Medical and Health Policy, 2(4):17-31.

    Avery GH. (2011) Scientific Misconduct: A Response to Davies and Fielding. World Medical and Health Policy, 3(2): Article 12

  7. “Politics determines funding and funding determines what gets investigated.”
    Really? What study of yours did not get funded because of politics?

  8. Conservatives have politicized science. My Master of Science in Environmental Management in 1982 was just a license to watch the greed, technical ignorance, and politics kill our chances of stopping this killer menace of climate change.
    Ignorance. How any of you understand the astonishing complexities of the interactions between the forces of physics and biology and geology and all the other sciences interacting at once, and changing rapidly?

    Yet those re the loudest voices in is discussion. It is not a debate because there is no question we her caused a big set of problems.

      1. Also, what will the apocalypse *be*?

        Fifty years ago, it was Global Cooling and the coming Ice Age.
        Then it suddenly became Global Warming — too hot rather than too cold.
        And now it is simply Climate Change — just change.

        If they’d just make up their minds as to which evil humanity was responsible for, it would be a whole lot easier to follow…

      2. Word games! “Apocalypse.” A chosen word, with precious little relevance.

        While there are many perches upon which to stand for purposes of judgement, the phenomena are the phenomena — warming Earth’s surface, rising seas, melting ice, increasing atmospheric CO2, etc. Mapping specific to general is and will always be problematic, just as predicting those specifics is — droughts, storms, methane releases, coral death, etc. But doubting the comparative rapidity of the general is, at this point, inane, as is pretending that human activity is not the major cause.

        But, hey, is this species suicide (apocalypse) or the rightful restoration of planetary thermal dynamics? Is it epic or trivial? Are we smartly coming round to spit in the eye of cosmic control, or are we flailing madly to shore up a bloated sand castle against a Fundy tide?

        Beats me.

  9. Valid points here. But the article is far too nice about the deep corruption and dishonesty in the “science” power structures.

    1. Typical comment of those with little science.
      Want to discuss the science? We can start with Ocean Acidification and the slowing of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.
      Are you concerned?

      1. Other researchers found little support for the claim that there is any long-term decline in the AMOC or that there was any human cause for the short period of decline they did observe. https://os.copernicus.org/articles/17/285/2021/ titled: “A 30-year reconstruction of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation shows no decline”

        I believe the authors are considered to have some training in science.
        I suggest that it might be you who are injecting politics into science.

  10. ” Science is falsifiable: if it is not falsifiable, it is not science.”

    Isn’t that the end of Global Warming being considered “science”?
    What is the difference between, say, Michael Mann and the girl who went around upstate New York collecting fossils? Both conducted qualitative research, and if she wasn’t following the scientific method, then neither was he. QED Global Cooling, aka Global Warming, aka Global Climate Change, aka something else next week — isn’t science….

    “Science is peer-reviewed….Science is the consensus of scientists.”

    And hence Galileo wasn’t a scientist because the consensus of scientists (circa 1615) was that the Earth was the center of the universe. Galileo’s heliocentric theory was peer-reviewed — and rather spectacularly peer-rejected in what is sometimes referred to as the Roman Inquisition.

    Likewise, Albert Einstein wasn’t a scientist — he was just a Swiss patent clerk who happened to write interesting papers that I don’t believe were peer-reviewed prior to publication. And I don’t know how much of e=mc2 would have become a scientific consensus if there hadn’t been a really big bang out in the New Mexico desert, followed by two more in Japan.

    “Science” got us Asbestos, DDT, and Carbon Tet. “Science” got us automatic fire extinguishers consisting of glass containers of Carbon Tet that would shatter in a fire — extinguishing both the fire and any human life in the area. (It took “science” decades to realize that this really wasn’t a good idea…) Before that was the medical practice of “bleeding” — which is probably what killed George Washington.

    “Science” got us the Lockheed L-188 Electra, a lovely airliner that unfortunately had a problem with harmonic motion ripping its wings off, with three fatal crashes inside of 13 months. A few decades earlier, “science” got us the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that ripped itself apart for the same reason.

    Worse are the recent findings that a jaw-dropping percentage of scientific studies, published in peer-reviewed journals, could not be duplicated. Duplication — the ability of someone else to use your research methods and get the same results — is the core of the scientific method. Memory is that something like 3/4 of psychology research could not be duplicated — what does that say about the purported “science” of psychology?

    So we are supposed to slice off healthy body parts and chemically castrate children because the same “science” says that we have 57 genders? What’s next, liposuction as the treatment for anorexia?!? Bald Eagles are endangered (or something), Right Whales definitely are, yet “the science” mandates that we pollute the ocean with hundreds of windmills which we know will slice & dice the Bald Eagles (the ones on land already are*) and inevitably will put enough noise into the water to screw up the whales’ ability to communicate and likely to navigate as well, even if they don’t run into them.

    Call me a Luddite, but I have a problem blindly worshiping the false God known as “Science, particularly when it has been wrong so many times.

    * The tips if the blades are moving in excess of 100 MPH and what the eagle saw as open space ahead isn’t when the eagle gets there. It’s like a motorist getting hit by a train — what the motorist saw as open space ahead isn’t when the car gets to the crossing.

    1. I see many of these comments from those with no appreciable science in these fields. Political prejudice and ignorance have led us to where we are today: On the precipice of heat death. I earned a Master of Science in this field in 1982.
      There is no question we have destabilized the Stable State of the climate, and now it will oscillate between extremes until it finds a new Stable State. It may not be conducive to human habitat.

      1. Reduced by 71.9%, not eliminated — and a “scientist” should be able to understand the limitation of a very small sample size (four turbines) in a different ecosystem with different species. See: https://tethys.pnnl.gov/sites/default/files/publications/May_EcolEvol_2020.pdf Note how the researchers themselves are cautioning about the limitations of their findings…

        However that does not negate the bigger issue of the vibrations producing noise in the water and what that will do to the Right Whales — of which something like 329 are believed to exist. They use sound to navigate and this constant noise in their migration route isn’t going to help — and I fail to see how they are going to avoid colliding with these narrow towers in deep water that their “sonar” won’t be able to detect.

    2. The 12 year old girl didn’t engage in statistical shenanigans or try to “hide the decline”.

    3. Especially among scientists, humility is a virtue. So is broad-mindedness on how we think about what science is and what makes it distinctive.

  11. So the NAS science guy has now come out in favor of ending government support of basic science. Good luck with that program. It makes me sorry I ever had anything to do with this organization.

      1. Way back in Lincoln’s time the federal government funded land grant universities. There was work in agriculture going on. A lot of government-sponsored exploration (Lewis and Clark, you know?) Things really got going in the twentieth century, especially with World War II. The Manhattan Project and all that stuff, you know? Yeah, it got much bigger because it got much more useful. We still face massive challenges; our military posture may be weaker than it has been in our lifetimes. And actually, goverment funding of research has been declining as a share of GDP. Maybe that has something to do with the horrifying decline of the country.

        Your proposal strikes me as simply nihilistic.

        If this is what NAS has come to stand for, I will be happy to have nothing much to do with it.

      2. I believe it may have been Socrates who said that there is a reason why we have two ears and only one mouth.

    1. What the NAS science guy neglected to mention was that government support of basic science was part of the defense effort during the 50 years war (1941-1991) as part of our desperate but successful attempt to defeat first the National Socialists and then the Soviet Communists. The 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik scared the daylights out of people and led to a lot of the Federal funding that hasn’t always existed.

      There may be reasons to fund basic science, but the reason why we were no longer exists.

      1. Dr Ed is right, the massive expansion of federal support of basic research in universities was driven in large part by defense concerns (my graduate school support was through a National Defense Graduate Fellowship (the wording might be wrong, it was fifty years ago!). But it was sold with high language about the “endless frontier”, and the virtues of “curiosity-driven research”. For about thirty years, it more-or-less worked that way, but demographics worked its relentless way through the academic sciences, to the point that “curiosity-driven” research is viewed as selfish indulgence.
        For some of the history, see: ttps://www.heritage.org/science-policy/report/science-and-the-decline-the-american-academy

      2. The PSSC Physics Curriculum (intended for high school students) came out of this and you might want to look into that.

        One of the goals was to get STEM teachers, particularly Physics and Math, into K-12 because it was feared that the Soviets were doing a better job of teaching it than we were. Now where have we heard that recently???

        Look into the PSSC Physics curriculum though — it *was* taught in high schools in the 1960s & 1970s.

  12. Unfortunately science is no longer driven by intellectual curiosity or a desire to “push the envelope”. It’s driven by what gets funded.

    One reason so many have bought into the man-made climate change hysteria is because NSF simply will not fund anything that studies climate change without presuming man is causing it. What were the chances of getting any serious funding from NIH if your preliminary results indicate masks don’t work and the jab may not be all that effective? Try and get funding for research on new oil exploration methods.

    Politics determines funding and funding determines what gets investigated.
    No funding, no tenure, no promotion. And scientists purposely construct those philosophical fences to ensure no one disrupts that funding.

    1. Sadly, that’s true of Education as well. There are predetermined conclusions and only that which affirms these predetermined conclusions has a chance of getting funded.

      In many ways, we are back to the days of Galileo and the Roman Inquisition.

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