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OnWords: Because Science!

The Rocketeer / Flickr / Creative Commons

Those of us tuned in to social media have probably run across someone using a term like “because science” to explain something factual or amazing or both.

But “science” is often used when we really mean “technology.”

To see the difference, look at your cell phone. It’s a neat little bit of technology, but how often do we think about the science behind it? More to the point, how many of us really care?

It’s the application of those scientific principles, after all, that let us tweet at all hours about the doings of our cats and kids, that let us post pictures of how much snow we’ve gotten or what we’re having for lunch.

Science, then, is really about understanding nature, and technology is really about making things work.

They can be related, and often are, but they don’t need to be. The hammer, after all, was in use for millennia before Isaac Newton ever declared that force equals mass times acceleration. You don’t need to know a whole lot about why it works to drive a nail, or, for that matter, to drive a car.

This disconnect is maybe why the definition of science, and scientific theory, seems to be so elusive: how science works is not readily apparent in the things we use every day.

So it might be helpful to think of science as a sociological phenomenon, one Thomas Kuhn recounted in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn presented science as a series of interrelated projects, the limits of which are inherent in the structure of each. When a project runs up against its own limits, Kuhn notes, it must be abandoned.

This so-called “paradigm shift” is responsible for whole new ways of making sense of things, new ways of interpreting old facts.

Using the word “science” to describe a human phenomenon, one determined by how we understand things, may not win any online arguments, but it may give us a new appreciation for both its wonders and its limits.