The convention in our society is that common usage determines the meaning of a word.  So we learn what a word really means, not by theorizing about what it "should" mean, but by observing how it is used in reference works (including dictionaries and encyclopedias), by the media, and during discussions.  If we do this for the word “science”, we find the following:
    There is a loosely organized community of people widely recognized as being "scientists", who are engaged in an enterprise called "science".  Although for some individuals it is uncertain whether or not they are in this community and although there are disagreements among those who surely are in it, the situation is clear enough that one can determine the consensus of the community, in regard to both the proper way to practice science and the current status of scientific discoveries and theories.  So a proposed definition of science must be rejected if it is inconsistent with this consensus — if, for example, it implies that anecdotal evidence is sufficient, that all disease is psychosomatic, that evolution is unverifiable, that Einstein's theories are nonsense, that astrology is a science, or that archaeology is not.
    Therefore to solve the demarcation problem — that is, to find a definition of "science" that is precise enough to delineate the boundary between science and non-science — we must ask:  What exactly is it that scientists are doing? That is, how can we characterize their activities, which have led them to their present consensus?  The obvious first thought is to ask the scientists themselves.  Unfortunately most scientists are not philosophically inclined; they do not claim to be able to articulate a definition of science but claim only to know it when they see it.  So the problem of formulating a viable definition is left to those (whether scientists or non-scientists) who philosophize about science (including myself and hopefully some of my readers).
      I next shall consider a few failed efforts to define science, after which I present my own definition.
What is Not Science?
    The fact that according to common usage science coincides with the practices of the recognized scientific community does not sit well with some people.  Typically (1) they want to reject those conclusions reached by science that conflict with their own strong — usually religious — beliefs (for example, conclusions about the origin of the universe, the evolution of life, and the ancient history of the Middle East), yet (2) they hope to trade on science's very favorable public image by calling their own views scientific.   Many of them simply introduce their own definition of science, one that is compatible with their beliefs.  This is of course quite dishonest, since science's good reputation is the result of its many successes, which it has obtained by adhering to the very practices of which the naysayers disapprove.  The proper course for the naysayers would be to admit frankly that they do not entirely accept science and to select another word to label their own views.
    Instead many of them try less direct approaches.  Some retain the common meaning for science but claim that it should be divided into "good" and "bad" science.  They consider themselves qualified to be arbiters of what goes into each category; so it comes as no surprise when it turns out that good science conforms to their biases, while bad science does not.  One wonders whether they are attempting to hide, not just from others, but also from themselves, that their beliefs are at least partly unscientific.
    A somewhat different ploy is to define a new kind of science, differing from science (as the term is commonly understood) in ways that eliminate unwanted scientific conclusions in favor of others deemed more desirable.  One example (from The Creation Hypothesis, J. P. Moreland, ed., 1994) is "theistic science", which, although the author struggles doggedly to argue otherwise, has little in common with science, except for the second part of its name. Clearly his hope is that the chosen name will leave the impression that theistic science is a kind of science, just as a frying pan is a kind of pan, but a more accurate analogy is Hobson's choice, which is not a kind of choice but actually no choice at all.
    Some naysayers argue that letting the scientific community decide what is science means that scientists are being allowed to dictate what others should think.  This is nonsense.  Scientists are merely offering their expert opinions, and common usage labels these opinions as science.  No one is being coerced; anyone can choose to adopt contrary views.  However, to call the contrary views "science" makes as much sense as to call a horse an aardvark.
    Those opposed to science are not the only ones who propose faulty definitions for it.  I next shall discuss a definition favored by many advocates of science.
March 1, 2008
This is the first in a series of columns that are intended to explain and defend a coherent philosophy — my own.  Feedback from my readers is encouraged and should result in my making clarifications, corrections, and (with luck) improvements.  To get started I devote the first few columns to establishing some nomenclature.
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Jethro Flench