Science behind-the-scenes: Which fields are “real sciences”?

Author: Bryan Moyers

Content Editors: Christina Vallianatos, Molly Kozminsky

Senior Editor: Alisha John



Well, that field isn’t really science.”

Oh, that’s just a soft science.”

Most people who work in the sciences have probably heard phrases like these.  Translation: that field is lesser.  The physicists say it about everyone lower than them in the pecking order, as do the chemists, biologists, and so on down the line.  The nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford famously said, “All science is either physics or stamp-collecting.”  People argue about this at scientific conferences and in the media.   The science and pop-culture webcomic xkcd has even parodied the issue.

purity xkcd
Image source: Randall Munroe, xkcd

But we’re left asking: how do we define what is and isn’t science?  This isn’t just an idle question; it also has legal and societal implications.  In the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover trial, Michael Behe made arguments for why Intelligent Design, the spiritual successor of Creationism, should be considered science and taught in the classroom as an alternative to evolution.  Behe’s opponent argued that his proposed definition of science would also allow astrology, which isn’t allowed in science classrooms according to national education standards, to be classified as science.  As another example, research funding is allocated in accordance with what grant reviewers and funding agencies consider “real science”.  When congress restricted National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for political science, a Washington Post editorial argued that they should have gone further—all social science funding should be cut.  Because this is a high-stakes issue, we need to find a good definition for science.

Searching for a definition

We generally think of science as knowledge about the natural world gained through experiment and observation.  This definition leaves open a lot of questions.  Is anthropology science?  Anthropologists use observation to study the past and present world.  What about sociology?  History?  Linguistics?  Perhaps instead of defining entire fields as “science” or “not science,” we should look more closely than that—maybe some anthropology studies are science but other anthropology studies are not.  Finding a good definition for science would help with two major issues. First, sorting out what’s science, what’s not science and what’s pseudoscience (a special kind of non-science which masquerades as science). Second, assessing the usefulness of calling some sciences “more pure” than others.

Let’s try to find a definition for science using physics as an example.  Physics has been foundational to so many scientific breakthroughs that one might think any field worth calling “science” is just an extension of physics’ long arms.  Without physics, we wouldn’t know the structure of DNA, the age of the Earth and its fossils, or anything requiring powerful microscopes.  If we’re going to call any field a “real science,” physics seems the most likely candidate.  So let’s try to pick out the quality that sets physics apart as “real” or “pure” science and other fields as “not real” or “less pure” science.  

Maybe “pure sciences” are quantitative, as we think of physics being more quantitative than “less pure science” fields.  This is an admirable trait because quantitative measures can make experimental data more objective, removing some of the personal biases that we all have.  But a lot of “less pure science” fields are also quantitative.  Engineering and mathematics are both number-heavy, but there are good arguments that those aren’t sciences.  The marriage of biology and mathematics is gaining more recognition today, but mathematics has been an impetus for biological theory since Mendel counted his peas.  In psychology, the field of psychometrics is a quantitative cornerstone, and psychology’s history is intertwined with developing new statistics used in many sciences.  

Perhaps science is defined by accuracy and precision, qualities the field of physics is famous for.  Compared to the “less pure” science fields of psychology with its replicability problem and meteorology with its frustrating weather predictions, physics might be thought to have much higher precision and accuracy.  But again, there are counterexamples.  Biology has mapped the 3 billion letters of the human genome with extremely little error.  Additionally, physics hasn’t always been accurate: estimates of the age of the earth varied wildly for quite a long time, and the vacuum of space was denied even into the 1900s.  Accuracy and precision can take time: physics has been around for over two millennia, whereas psychology (for example) has only existed for around 150 years.  Perhaps given time we’ll find that the accuracy and precision of psychology and other fields is much higher.  Perhaps not.  But it seems that accuracy and precision aren’t the defining characteristics of a science– after all, physics didn’t become a science once it became accurate and precise enough.

Maybe true sciences make contributions to other fields, as physics has done.  This seems like a good criterion at first, but it also breaks down on close examination.  For instance, Brownian motion, the basis of one of Einstein’s most important papers,  was discovered by a botanist studying plant reproduction.  Similarly, philosophy has made countless contributions to physics, as in Einstein’s thought experiments.  These findings don’t make botany or philosophy any more or less scientific.  

For every defining quality of a field as “pure” science, one or more fields that some consider “less pure science” share that quality.

Turning to philosophy to answer questions about science

Finding the line between science and everything else is a major problem in philosophy called The Demarcation Problem.  If you’re interested in learning more about that topic, pick up Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery.  But for an answer that can work in day-to-day life, the following framing usually works pretty well:

Science isn’t a field or set of fields, it’s a method for designing and testing ideas.  If an idea is falsifiable (meaning that an observation could prove the theory wrong) and is corroborated by evidence from the scientific method, then it’s probably fair to call it scientific, or better yet to say that it has scientific support.

This definition helps us abandon field-based chauvinism and identify pseudosciences.  Certain areas of physics, like string theory, may or may not be scientifically supported.  Some areas of anthropology might clearly be science-based while other areas could be considered humanities.  This gives a more nuanced view and highlights an important point: science doesn’t have a monopoly on useful insights.  Science is a powerful tool that can be used in nearly any field of study to varying degrees, but it’s not the only tool that can help us to grow, find truth, and improve the world.

Feature image credit: Ada Hagan

About the author

bryanOur second co-founder, Logistics Coordinator and Senior Editor, Bryan Moyers, is a doctoral student in the Bioinformatics program at the University of Michigan. Bryan’s research focuses on methodological problems in molecular evolution, and correctly inferring information from data. In other words, his research sheds light on problems with the methods commonly used in the field of Evolutionary Biology so that improvements can be made. Bryan holds degrees in Biology and Psychology from Purdue University. His interests are in science and education issues, philosophy of science, and the intersection of science and business. Outside of science, Bryan enjoys reading, running, hiking, and brewing/consuming beer.

Read more by Bryan here.

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