The Natural Sciences: What makes something a science?

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When first looked at, one would assume that the natural sciences consist of primarily biology, chemistry and physics. However, how did we come to have these three subjects as so clearly ‘sciences’, and what is it that stops other subjects and areas of learning from being science?

As the dictionary puts it, science is ‘the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment’ (my laptop crashed when searching this so I feel like that says something about trying to define ‘science’). This seems like a fair definition, that science is observing and experimenting the natural world (generally leading to some sort of explanation for why things are the way that they are).

Now we move on to what categorises something within science as biology, chemistry or physics. While the three can often overlap, I find that this is a fair way of categorising the three:

  • Biology – studying living organisms
  • Chemistry – studying atoms, what matter is made of, their physical properties and how they react with other substances
  • Physics – studying matter and energy, and how that affects (or has previously affected) the world around us

However, with biochemistry, for example, do we put it in biology or chemistry, or a whole new category of its own? This is a problem that we encounter with science: the grey area where we put things that are not placed into a clear category, or things that we are not quite sure if they are ‘science’ or not. For example, something like astrology – it is technically the study of the natural world around us, but astrologers are not considered scientists at all – far from it. In my eyes, something is constituted as a natural science is it is the study of the natural/physical world and experiments can be carried out in it. As much as some would like to think so, experiments cannot really be carried out in astrology – if they were, it would probably be more of a human science than a natural science.

So the world of natural science is a vast one, and not being a scientist myself, it looks like a maze to try and explore (but with much difficulty). Its purpose is to help understand our world and the beings in it, and it can pretty much never be ‘finished’ – there is always more to discover.

One thought on “The Natural Sciences: What makes something a science?

  1. I like this post, Olivia. I am particularly pleased with the way you question the boundaries of disciplines within the Natural Sciences but then go on to ask where the line can drawn more generally. It is interesting that you point towards experimentation as being key to the Natural Sciences. This suggests that it may be the methodology of an area of knowledge which sets it apart rather than its content. Also, it seems to link with the point Michael Shermer made about science being a ‘verb’ rather than a ‘noun’. I wonder whether there is a tension between drawing boundaries and not drawing boundaries within knowledge? If we didn’t do it at all, would the culture of a discipline be able to develop in order to produce more knowledge in the way it could? But set against this is, as you say, the idea that it is perhaps a bit arbitrary to do so. What do you think?


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