Like many other fields, science has its own style of communication full of specific jargon and guided by unwritten rules. Most of the posts on this blog focus on breaching this barrier to the public’s understanding and appreciation of science. In this series, I’d like to take another approach by highlighting scientific words which have escaped the confines of jargon to reach a broader appeal because of their sound or their evocative power as metaphors. Today’s word is a bit different from the earlier words; this time I’d like to talk about the word science itself. [Previous words of science were petrichor, alluvium, nychthemeron, crepuscular, and interstitial.]
In English, “science” refers to a specific kind of knowledge and practice. Physics certainly qualifies, along with biology and chemistry. Economics and psychology probably count as “science” to many people, though they’re usually distinguished by being called ‘social sciences’. On the other hand, many disciplines, ranging from history to literary analysis, would never be called science; instead, they fall under the heading “humanities”.
This distinction may seem perfectly natural to native English speakers, but it’s not actually universal. Several languages, including a few closely related to English, don’t admit the same categories. The Swedish word for science, for example, is vetenskap, but its meaning is actually somewhat more general; the same is true of the Dutch wetenschap and the German Wissenschaft. These words all refer to the systematic and serious pursuit of knowledge and the search for general principles through rigorous study, regardless of the field of inquiry. Vetenskap encompasses the whole gamut of disciplines that English divides into natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.
This isn’t just a peculiar quirk of a handful of Germanic languages. The Arabic word علم (roughly pronounced ilm (actually `lm)) and the Finnish tiede are similar; both are translations of “science” but actually mean systematic knowledge more broadly. One can speak of litteraturvetenskap in Swedish (literally “literature-science”) or uskontotiede in Finnish (literally “science of religion”) where in English we might say “comparative literature” and “religious studies”. When I first saw the world litteraturvetenskap, it took me a moment to properly understand it; I initially went with the literal translation and tried to figure out what “literary science” might be. Betraying my quantitative bias, I thought it had something to do with analysing word frequencies or usage patterns.
There isn’t really an etymological basis for the distinction that English makes. The word science comes to us from Latin via Old French; the root is the Latin verb scire, which simply means “to know”. (I do find it fascinating that this may, in turn, come from an older Proto-Indo-European root sci- meaning “to divide/cut/separate” — who knew reductionism was embedded in the very word itself!) It’s a relatively modern distinction (dating back to the mid-1800s) and we still sometimes use the word in the broader sense, but the modern usage certainly tends to reinforce our awareness of the differences between these fields of knowledge rather than highlighting their similarities. To my mind, this somehow mirrors the modern conception of a decoupling between science and philosophy, a view which has always struck me as somewhere between narrow-minded and deeply flawed. I find that I far prefer a more general approach to defining our pursuit of knowledge, whatever form that might take.
- Do you think there’s a good reason to distinguish between natural sciences, social sciences and humanities?
- How do other languages you know deal with the words “science” and “knowledge”?
- Do you think there’s such a thing as “literary science”? Should Shakespeare scholars be called “literary scientists”?
(This post was inspired by HBG Casimir’s essay “When does jam become marmalade?” in A Random Walk in Science.)
I’m in favour of a distinction between science and humanities/social science. I think it is important because of the different principles behind how you prove something, or whether you really care about proof at all. then if you read “scientists say…”, you at least ought to be able to think that it is something objective. Whereas “professor of literature says” is possibly interesting, but you know it is one person’s view.
I get what you’re saying but I’m not sure I entirely agree. I think we’re usually taught a rather caricatured version of “the scientific method” at school. The core pr
inciple is correct, but otherwise it’s a simplification that’s hard to find outside of a few situations. For example, while a “historical science” like evolutionary biology makes predictions, it’s often impossible to set up a controlled experiment. Rather, we gather data about the past and try to make a theory that’s consistent with t
hem. If the theory is a good one, it should predict stuff we don’t yet know (about the past or the present), but we can’t directly test our ideas in an experiment where
we only vary one (or a few) factors. I think cosmology is similar in that regard.
I think it’s possible to make the argument that that’s what scholars in other fields do, too. A Shakespeare scholar comes up with a hypothesis based on what they know about the life and works of Shakespeare; for example, they might think that Shakespeare’s plays were written by several authors instead of one person or that the sonnets were written by a different person than the plays or whatever. Based on this idea, they predict that, say, the frequency distribution of words will differ between plays and sonnets (or something more thoughtful and complicated) and then they test that by textual analysis. A similar scenario could be described for a historian, where the prediction might be about the causes (or inevitability) of a certain historical event and the analysis would involve carefully evaluating the different factors and actors involved. The process may not be as explicit as in science and I think it’s rarely laid out in the same terms…but is something like this really fundamentally different from what happens in evolutionary biology or ecology or cosmology?
In both of the examples above, the scholar’s peers would still evaluate their work, so I don’t think it’s necessarily just a matter of opinion. Of course, there are cases where people are simply arguing from authority or where unsupported opinions become enshrined as facts, but I don’t think that’s necessarily an inherent difference between science and other fields of knowledge. Am I way off the mark here?
Nice idea to look at the very word “science” itself Sedeer : )
I wonder if this distinction between disciplines is as unique to English as you think it is.
Looking at this from my background as a native Dutch speaker, the Dutch do indeed use the umbrella term “wetenschap” for science, but they make a very clear distinction between so-called alpha, beta and gamma sciences. These respecively refer to humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.
As many other germanic languages, Dutch uses compound words to expand its vocabulary (talking about ‘literatuurwetenschappen” or “natuurwetenschappen”), while English often uses separate words. I wonder if this creates the impression of such a distinction being unique to English.
To answer your other question, yes, I do think these distinctions are sensible. The Dutch wikipedia pages have nicely worded definitions of the alpha, beta, and gamma science: disciplines respectively dealing with products of the human mind, physical laws, and society. All involve pursuit of knowledge, but in my opinion there is no denying their dissimilarities.
I’m glad you liked the idea, Leon!
It’s not that I want to deny their dissimilarities, but I think the English terminology puts more emphasis on them than the Dutch approach. I think using the term “wetenschap” for all of them acknowledges their similarities while subdividing “wetenschap” recognizes the differences. It feels like the completely different terms used in English focus solely or primarily on the differences. If English used something like “natural science”, “human science”, and “social science” it would seem more in line with the approach the other languages take. It might be that the tendency to make compounds is part of it, though Arabic and French are more like English in that regard and yet are in the “wetenschap” camp.
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