The Generalist

Weekly Word (and Equivocation): Science

Yesterday I was musing about writing a new post. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the difficulty inherent in writing on political topics. This difficulty stems from a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is the reaction you will get from people who don’t agree with you. The other difficulties come from two sources, one for each type of reasoning involved. And that’s where I stumbled upon something else that’s been on my mind to write about for awhile. As I was busily talking to myself about the difficulties inherent in political writing, I spontaneously used the phrase political science.  I then immediately corrected myself – politics is not a science.

But isn’t it?

What exactly is a science?

The word science is actually a great example of polysemy. It is also an equivocation. An equivocation is, specifically, the use of words with double meanings that also happen to muddle our thinking, something the words man, or mole, or mouse, while examples of polysemy, almost never do. The word science, however, definitely does.

What are these two meanings? One is a very broad meaning – any broad field of study.

Under this usage, economic science and political science are entirely justified terms.

However, there is another understanding of the word science, one that if not made explicit can certainly cause problems – a broad field of study that uses the scientific method to discover the truth.

The scientific method.

Economics and Politics do not use the scientific method.

Science is empirical. That means to discover the truth in science one must observe some aspect of the outside world, collect observations as data, create hypotheses, do experiments to test those hypotheses, and only then draw a conclusion. This is the scientific method. On top of that, the conclusion drawn is perpetually tentative – meaning that further observations, hypotheses and experiments, can partially or completely invalidate it.

Neither politics nor economics are sciences in this sense. Both are the products of deductive reasoning. This means that no observation, data collection, hypothesizing, or experimenting are called for. It means that the conclusions drawn are certain insofar as the reasoning is correct, and therefore not tentative. It means that no further observations, hypotheses or experiments can ever invalidate them.

The use of the term science to refer to pursuits based on deductive reasoning is to my mind no accident. Insofar as it leads to errors in thinking – things like “The constitution of the United States is a 200 year old document. The ideas espoused there are outdated.” or “We must collect data on the demand for loans in order to determine how much money should be printed.” – it is a boon to those in power because it keeps the true nature of such fields hidden from the average person, thereby allowing the Powers-That-Be to take political and economic actions that enrich them at the expense of everyone else.

And it’s insidious. Because even people like me, who explicitly know better, can fall into the trap of using this word inappropriately. I think even Ayn Rand has done so in essays here and there referring to philosophy as “science”. What do you call these fields if not sciences? That is the question. Subject and field of study seem a bit boring and long winded respectively. Perhaps we don’t need a word at all. The science of economics is just economics and political science is just politics. Ah, yes, but in the universities both will always be referred to as sciences.

Now you know why.

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