The Art of Science

By: John D. Ferrer
Originally: 24 March 2013, updated 22 March 2015

As a student of philosophy, occasionally I find people wandering into my field of study mistaking it for their own.  Generally, I am amused, unoffended, and graciously invite them in, or help the mistaken wanderer back into his own field. Often those misguided ma’ams and misters have wandered over here from their preferred field of science.

Admittedly, the borders of science and philosophy can be difficult to define. With their indistinct edges, I’d expect that mistake sometimes. Science is a grandiose field of wide public acclaim. Many consider it “home turf,” it’s their own (shared) property. Many boast in its spoils and fruit, claiming all the harder that it is their preferred and favorite field. Going further, we may say, it is considered by many to be the field where truth and facts happen.

Other fields, such as my own, in philosophy, or theology or the arts, are where subjective experiences, opinions, feelings, and the softer stuff of life happen. While I disagree with the distinction I understand it and its value, and do not dismiss everything about it. My purpose here is to observe how science, for all the facts, objective truth, and concrete reality it uncovers, is largely a field of art, where subjectivity, analogy, philosophy, and theology all overlap within the craftwork we call “Science.”

In classical categories, education has revolved around two main fields of learning: Arts and Sciences. “Science” referred to any field of knowledge. And the “arts” were all sorts of practical knowledge for making things—that is, craft work from painting pictures, to building bridges, to hunting, to cutting hair, to binding books, and so on.

Before modern science was born, education tended to hover around down-to-earth practical matters, such as reading, writing, basic math, and then craft or trade—be it shoe-making, needlepoint, farming, herding, etc.

And the main means of education were three-fold: parental child-rearing (where kids would learn elementary basics), apprenticeships, and, for the wealthy, a personal home tutor.

At that time, “sciences” referred to all the fields of abstract learning: philosophy, theology, and what we now call “natural science,” but was then approximated with the phrase “natural philosophy.” We’ll call this sense “scientia” (pl. scientiae), referring to the Latin term for “knowledge.”

As time progressed, Plato’s proto-universities eventually led into Medieval Scholastic universities. There, an educated person would have to master three basic scientiae and four advanced scientiae. The three basics, called the trivium, were composed of logic, to help people think well, grammar to help people write well, and rhetoric, to help people speak well. Added to that were the four advanced fields called the quadrivium wherein an “educated” person would need to understand natural science (identified with astronomy), calculation (math), engineering and craft (identified with geometry), and the fine arts (identified with music). Even today, the trivium and quadrivium are standard fare in classical schools.

Today, education has largely shifted (at least in the U.S.) away from the classical model, replacing logic and rhetoric with math and natural science in the basic studies, and identifying engineering, technology, and most any productive field under some form of natural science. Reading and writing are not as greatly emphasized, while “science and technology” are emphasized more heavily. For that reason, “natural science” (the term which replaced “natural philosophy” during the 19th century) is usually what people mean by “science.” Other fields, like theology and philosophy, may or may not be treated as fields of knowledge. They are considered fields of theory, value, or conjecture, often thought to be separate and subordinate to the findings of natural science.

The title of this post, then, might seem like a category mistake. To blur “art” and “science” is to treat science like it’s not a field of knowledge, but just a big how-to seminar.

Nevertheless, there is an artistic side to science. Navigating the modern educational world can be confusing, with many different models of education to choose from, different philosophies of education driving them, and serious consequences if we choose poorly.

This article is an attempt to cast the natural sciences more realistically, so that readers can have an advantage in approaching them in a university or vocational setting. He or she can anticipate, appreciate, and operate within the actual practice of natural science, and do so without having to first dig through idealistic misrepresentations in the brochures and ads.

The artistic side of science does not have to be a fault or a hindrance, but can dignify and distinguish the natural sciences. If you are a science major, or are entering a career in science, it is critical to understand the art of science, lest disillusionment cost you grades, time, money, and a lot of energy.

But how, then, can science be an art?

First, “science” is not a concrete term, but an abstraction referring to an activity. It refers to a certain craft involving the scientific method, some appeal to natural effects and causes, and falsifiability. One does not bump into a science as if it were a rock or a stump. Science is conceptual, referring to how one goes about understanding the world. Even though it’s difficult to define exhaustively, it’s broadly agreed that science involves the scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, conclusion), and some form of falsifiability.

When we learn, for example, that dolphins are mammals, that knowledge of nature can be called “science,” but to be more specific it should be termed “scientific,” since it’s consistent with the knowledge of nature gleaned through the craft of science. People observed dolphins, hypothesized that they were mammals, and then tested that hypothesis by looking to see if dolphins met the criteria of mammality. Science is an activity that people engage in, not merely a set of ideas. Art is the fitting term for craft work such as science.

Second, besides mere activity, there is practical skill involved in conducting science. Much of science is exact, requiring great care, lest one ruin an experiment or data set with careless errors. And even the inexact practices permitted in science still have their appropriate degree of precision.

There may be estimates involved in counting planets in a solar system, but if those estimates are too far off, then they might not be exact enough to be considered scientifically credible. The demands of science are exacting, requiring practical skills, be it operating a telescope, cleaning beakers, calculating binomials, programming computers, or fixing the lab video camera. Being a skilled craft, science is therefore an art.

Third, there is an aesthetic component to the methodology of science. In evaluating which interpretations best account for the experimental data, there is no single and rigorous manner for weighing competing views. Scientists employ “inference to the best explanation,” or what’s called the “abductive” method.

Suppose two theories are equally precise, comprehensive, and accurate (account for all the relevant data), but one theory is aesthetically beautiful. The more beautiful theory can get the nod. With inference to the best explanation, or abduction, any number of different lines of evidence can be used to support a theory even when we admit that “beauty” is not the most objective, concrete, or definite evidence to appeal to. Simplicity, beauty, and explanatory power can all be used with various respective weights as evidence for a theory. Part of the appeal of Darwinian evolution is precisely that it’s beautiful in its simplicity. It streamlined the theory of speciation down from the theologically dense and mysterious theories of the day.

Fourth, the social side of science involves persuasion, and art matters in persuasion. Science is expensive. It takes time and money to hypothesize, experiment, make findings, write out those findings, publish those findings, and gather grants for further study in order to advance one’s particular field of science. Persuasion works in enticing donors, winning friends at conferences, earning grants, and in drawing together an audience to present findings. Persuasion is itself an art, but it also involves other arts such as language, beautiful displays, skillful planning, and stylish practice. Otherwise these artistic elements might seem unrelated to natural science. Strictly speaking, grant writing is not “science.” But in a broader ense it is, since the sociological phenomenon of science requires funding, peer review, publishing, and collegial interaction, and all of these have their respective artistic features where people, for good or ill, are more likely to sit through an aesthetically attractive presentation than a monotone monologue—even if both discuss the same experiment.

Fifth, natural science is just as value-laden as it is factual, and “values” tend to be categorized at least as much under “art” as under “science.” Ideally, science should be done in as objective, or value-neutral, a manner as possible. However, the actual practice of science incorporates all sorts of values, such as liking or disliking colleagues, discerning practical values for conducting research (i.e., preferring early morning over late nights in the lab since the cleaning crew gets in the way after 10 p.m.), identifying ethical means of experimentation, and identifying ethical uses of one’s research.

Also, different fields of science can develop biases that direct what fields of study are valued—neuropsychology is deemed valuable, while parapsychology might marginalize the scientist, even if one’s hypotheses and experimentation are equally scientific in their rigor.

Sixth, natural science involves interpretation. While interpretation need not be subjective, at least not totally, it often is subjective, revealing as much about the scientist as it does about the data. Our interpretive filters can be skewed by faith, presumption, expectation, and agendas of various sorts, and these can slip into the “conclusions” that scientists draw, even without noticing, if enough peer scientists share those biases.

I’m not saying that subjectivity is necessarily bad, or that the interpretive element in science is purely subjective. But there is at least a subjective component to a lot of scientific interpretation, and where there is subjectivity, there is a degree of artistry that is liable to slip in.

Seventh, science involves creativity in constructing experiments, formulating hypotheses, elaborating theories, projecting uses of new knowledge, etc. That creativity is art.

Eighth, because science is difficult to demarcate thoroughly from other fields (the “demarcation problem”), one going definition of science is “science is what scientists do.” Whatever weaknesses this definition may have, it does admit something obvious—science is at least an activity. Hence, it’s a craft; its product is discoveries and technology, and it thereby falls within the realm of art.

Ninth, since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions first shook the science world, it has been widely recognized that science is not the simple, steady steamroller of certainty we once thought. Its advance is not necessarily a straight line of human progress. Scientists fight, old theories persist, new theories don’t always win out. Some win out for non-objective reasons. Others persist despite objective rebuttal. Some theories abide in tandem, having only “soft” or subjective differences between them. Scientists may change their views to get the grant to do their research. Other scientists spend their career reinforcing a theory that is abandoned a generation later.

Without taking a strong stand on one side or another, it may be admitted that there is a lot of subjectivity within the scientific world, and at least some of that subjectivity undermines the simple view of science as objective fact-gathering. Instead, the social phenomenon of science is deeply interwoven with artistic elements.

Tenth, the results of science can be beautiful. It is no embarrassment to science at all that its findings can be gorgeous. Watch an episode of Blue Planet, or study the physics of a water droplet, or a rainbow, or observe the geological findings cast upon the side of a mountain—the view is breathtaking.

Eleventh, there is a sense in which all scientific argumentation is by analogy. Natural science is, by its nature, inexact—compared to math and logic, for example. Following the scientific method, people observe some aspect of nature and then propose a testable theory, a hypothesis. This hypothesis is a generalization implying a conclusion about some feature of nature on the basis of incomplete but (usually) observed evidence.

That hypothesis could concern the mating habits of penguins, the decomposition rate of an element, the expansion of the universe, or most any natural thing whatsoever. Rarely does the scientist observe all cases over all their times before drawing a hypothesis. But how does one construct a general rule like that, proposing some theory which accounts for cases and times that one has not observed?

That inferential work is by analogy. Analogies are comparisons on the basis of similarities. Where the similarities are relevant, plentiful ,and otherwise sufficient, an argument by analogy can work. Often we don’t even realize we are doing this. We may experiment on 1,000 or 100,000 penguins before concluding that the males warm the eggs. But what can we say about the thousands or millions of penguins that were not in our study? We apply these findings to those penguins, too, believing that their differences aren’t important enough to trump their similarities. On the basis of their similarities, we infer a conclusion—that is an analogy.

But let’s take this farther. Suppose, we could find a way to observe all penguins, and we find that in January, 2013, of all the penguins in the world, only males warmed the eggs. Have we gotten away from analogical argumentation then? Not quite. We still have to generalize over different times. It would be non-analogical to speak of the penguins observed only at the times they were observed. But the moment we treat the numerically same penguin as if it was identical across times, we have employed analogy again, presuming that Penguin A at time T1 is going to act consistently at times T2, T3, T4, T5, and so on.

In this manner, scientific argumentation operates by analogy. This is no shame or embarrassment, it’s just the nature of the beast. Understanding and appreciating how that fact redraws some presumed lines can give the individual scientist an edge in his field. But that element of analogy also reveals an inexact and even subjective component that might otherwise be overlooked. In that crevice, artistry can make the difference between an intuitively compelling theory and a counterintuitive, overly hasty generalization.

Twelfth, and finally, science cannot produce itself any more than the reader can be his or her own father. Science was born out of the philosophy of science, whereby someone first dreamed up the scientific method, falsification criteria, or whatever proposed distinctions qualify an activity as “science.” Philosophy is an open field permitting all manners of theory and evaluation—much of it rich with art. Philosophy of science is no exception. There is artful imagination, artful demonstration, and artful persuasion—all necessary for cultivating budding science from its philosophical soil.

As you can see, science is deeply artistic. There never was a strict divide between the arts and sciences. Art employs truth and knowledge about nature, and science employs art in conducting experiments and interpreting data.

Why might this matter to the vocational scientist or science major? For one thing, modern education might stand to benefit from appreciating the intersection of these typically divided disciplines.

A science major might do well to take an art class or two, cultivating the “right brain” a bit. A creative thinking class or a literature class could also help in these ways. A vocational scientist might benefit from a computer graphics course, or a study on interpretive theory. A bit of artistry might enable someone to interpret data in a more groundbreaking way that a non-creative scientist might miss. Not to mention that that person can, potentially, present his material in a more interesting, compelling, and persuasive manner, thus improving his chances for praise from superiors, for winning prizes, and for publication and circulation of his ideas.

It’s a mistake to think of science without some artistic component. Science has been a great friend to modern man, but can just as easily become our enemy. Science has risen in influence in the modern era, but it has not outgrown its dependence on other fields like philosophy (philosophy of science, ethics) or the arts.

Craft, skill, and creativity can spell the difference between successful science and failed theorizing.

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