Ask us what we mean by “science” and you’ll find us a little circumspect. In fact, we think the word “science” is close to useless.
This might seem odd, given we work at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. You’d think we’d be pretty keen on science – and we are.
But “science” is an ambiguous word, an over-complicated cipher used as often to denigrate and marginalise as to motivate and embrace.
The term does a great disservice to we who wish to see greater public awareness of the processes, knowledge and capabilities of science.
So here’s our call: stop using it. What do we mean by this? Exactly that: let’s stop using the term “science”. Or at least, use it much more judiciously.
What does “science” mean?
Even formal definitions, arrived at by scientists and philosophers over the centuries, are far from consistent.
Depending where you look, science is:
- a process whereby knowledge is produced via the testing of falsifiable hypotheses against empirical observations of the natural world.
- the body of knowledge given over by that method.
- a culture encompassing normalised ideals and expectations of its adherents, existing beyond the mind and lifespan of the individuals involved.
- an industry (the definition most frequently implied in modern usage).
Informal perceptions of the word are even more diffuse. Science is, among other things:
- that horrible class in Year 10.
- the arcane and obscure dalliances of people in white lab coats.
- the grafters behind the magic of the Ponds Institute.
- the thing that makes iPads and flat-screen TVs.
- something doctors use on people.
- the confusing, technical, did-not-read material in government reports.
- a universal good.
- a universal bad.
Science, as a brand, is less like Apple and more like ACME, the catch-all company behind the coyote’s vast array of paraphernalia in the Road Runner cartoons. It can, and does, mean almost anything.