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Like many terms whose meaning at first seems obvious, the term "science" is actually quite difficult to define precisely. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the term has been defined in many different ways (and understood in many different senses) over the course of many centuries, so that defining it in any limited, strict, or single sense is very difficult. One has only to look at the many ways the term has been used to realize how difficult defining it precisely really is (see The Oxford English Dictionary).
For present purposes, the definitions provided at dictionary.com seem sufficient:
1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences. 2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. 3. any of the branches of natural or physical science. 4. systematized knowledge in general. 5. knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study. 6. a particular branch of knowledge.
7. skill, especially reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency.Of these definitions, perhaps # 5 most closely corresponds to what most people have in mind when they speak of "science." The importance of "knowledge gained by systematic study" is hard to over-estimate. Here are five reasons why such knowledge is important:
- It is knowledge. In other words, it is a set of claims and assertions in which we can have enormous confidence because those claims have been tested and have proven reliable. This is not to say that science is never wrong or infallible; indeed, it is precisely the fact that scientific claims can be falsified -- that is, proven untrue -- that we can have great confidence that generally accepted claims of science are reliable.
- It makes possible the manipulation of matter, allowing us to build things like bridges and airplanes and have good reasons to assume that they will not collapse or crash. Without science, material progress by humans would be haphazard and slow.
- It contains the possibility of growing knowledge. One scientific "discovery" often leads to another, and that one to another, and that one to another, in ways that are not true in other fields of human endeavor.
- It can be systematically taught. It does not rely as much as other kinds of thinking on inspiration, guess work, intuition, or chance. All these factors play some role in scientific discovery, but once a discovery has been made it can be taught to people as a truth in a way that is not true in other, less rigorous fields.
- It is convincing not because it is rhetorically attractive or emotionally satisfying but because it has enormous predictive value: science allows us to peer into the future in ways that other fields of study do not and cannot.
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