Nature and scope of science

What is science?

Science (from the Latin word scientia, meaning “knowledge”)[1] is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.[2][3][4]

The earliest roots of science can be traced to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in around 3500 to 3000 BCE.[5][6] Their contributions to mathematics, astronomy, and medicine entered and shaped Greek natural philosophy of classical antiquity, whereby formal attempts were made to provide explanations of events in the physical world based on natural causes.[5][6] After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, knowledge of Greek conceptions of the world deteriorated in Western Europe during the early centuries (400 to 1000 CE) of the Middle Ages[7] but was preserved in the Muslim world during the Islamic Golden Age.[8] The recovery and assimilation of Greek works and Islamic inquiries into Western Europe from the 10th to 13th century revived “natural philosophy”,[7][9] which was later transformed by the Scientific Revolution that began in the 16th century[10] as new ideas and discoveries departed from previous Greek conceptions and traditions.[11][12][13][14] The scientific method soon played a greater role in knowledge creation and it was not until the 19th century that many of the institutional and professional features of science began to take shape;[15][16][17] along with the changing of “natural philosophy” to “natural science.”[18]

Modern science is typically divided into three major branches that consist of the natural sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, and physics), which study nature in the broadest sense; the social sciences (e.g., economics, psychology, and sociology), which study individuals and societies; and the formal sciences (e.g., logic, mathematics, and theoretical computer science), which study abstract concepts. There is disagreement,[19][20] however, on whether the formal sciences actually constitute a science as they do not rely on empirical evidence.[21] Disciplines that use existing scientific knowledge for practical purposes, such as engineering and medicine, are described as applied sciences.[22][23][24][25]

Science is based on research, which is commonly conducted in academic and research institutions as well as in government agencies and companies. The practical impact of scientific research has led to the emergence of science policies that seek to influence the scientific enterprise by prioritizing the development of commercial products, armaments, health care, and environmental protection.

Branches of science

Modern science is commonly divided into three major branches that consist of the natural sciences, social sciences, and formal sciences. Each of these branches comprise various specialized yet overlapping scientific disciplines that often possess their own nomenclature and expertise.[90] Both natural and social sciences are empirical sciences[91] as their knowledge is based on empirical observations and is capable of being tested for its validity by other researchers working under the same conditions.[92]

There are also closely related disciplines that use science, such as engineering and medicine, which are sometimes described as applied sciences. The relationships between the branches of science are summarized by the following table.

Formal science Empirical sciences
Natural science Social science
Foundation Logic; Mathematics; Statistics Physics; Chemistry; Biology;
Earth science; Space science
Economics; Political science;
Sociology; Psychology
Application Computer science Engineering; Agricultural science;
Medicine; Dentistry; Pharmacy
Business administration;
Jurisprudence; Pedagogy

Natural science

The scale of the Universe mapped to branches of science and showing how one system is built atop the next through the hierarchy of the sciences.

Natural science is concerned with the description, prediction, and understanding of natural phenomena based on empirical evidence from observation and experimentation. It can be divided into two main branches: life science (or biological science) and physical science. Physical science is subdivided into branches, including physics, chemistry, astronomy and earth science. These two branches may be further divided into more specialized disciplines. Modern natural science is the successor to the natural philosophy that began in Ancient Greece. Galileo, Descartes, Bacon, and Newton debated the benefits of using approaches which were more mathematical and more experimental in a methodical way. Still, philosophical perspectives, conjectures, and presuppositions, often overlooked, remain necessary in natural science.[93] Systematic data collection, including discovery science, succeeded natural history, which emerged in the 16th century by describing and classifying plants, animals, minerals, and so on.[94] Today, “natural history” suggests observational descriptions aimed at popular audiences.[95]

Social science

Social science is concerned with society and the relationships among individuals within a society. It has many branches that include, but are not limited to, anthropology, archaeology, communication studies, economics, history, human geography, jurisprudence, linguistics, political science, psychology, public health, and sociology. Social scientists may adopt various philosophical theories to study individuals and society. For example, positivist social scientists use methods resembling those of the natural sciences as tools for understanding society, and so define science in its stricter modern sense. Interpretivist social scientists, by contrast, may use social critique or symbolic interpretation rather than constructing empirically falsifiable theories, and thus treat science in its broader sense. In modern academic practice, researchers are often eclectic, using multiple methodologies (for instance, by combining both quantitative and qualitative research). The term “social research” has also acquired a degree of autonomy as practitioners from various disciplines share in its aims and methods.

Formal science

Formal science is involved in the study of formal systems. It includes mathematics,[96][97] systems theory, and theoretical computer science. The formal sciences share similarities with the other two branches by relying on objective, careful, and systematic study of an area of knowledge. They are, however, different from the empirical sciences as they rely exclusively on deductive reasoning, without the need for empirical evidence, to verify their abstract concepts.[21][98][92] The formal sciences are therefore a priori disciplines and because of this, there is disagreement on whether they actually constitute a science.[19][20] Nevertheless, the formal sciences play an important role in the empirical sciences. Calculus, for example, was initially invented to understand motion in physics.[99] Natural and social sciences that rely heavily on mathematical applications include mathematical physics, mathematical chemistry, mathematical biology, mathematical finance, and mathematical economics.


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  5. “The historian … requires a very broad definition of “science” – one that … will help us to understand the modern scientific enterprise. We need to be broad and inclusive, rather than narrow and exclusive … and we should expect that the farther back we go [in time] the broader we will need to be.”  p.3—Lindberg, David C. (2007). “Science before the Greeks”. The beginnings of Western science: the European Scientific tradition in philosophical, religious, and institutional context(Second ed.). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. pp. 1–27. ISBN978-0-226-48205-7.
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14 thoughts on “Nature and scope of science

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