I have seldom came across the claim, generally in a humorous or ridiculing way, that Botany is "not a real science".

My problem

While I personally reject this claim, at least in the context of plant anatomy and physiology, I want to better understand that claim.

For example, I can understand why taxonating the unending amount of sub-species of well defined species of trees, can be a waste of time and not doing science, but I cannot understand why a generalization about Botany as a whole is valid.

I would not be surprised to come across a similar claim about viruses (which I understand and I might be wrong, going through evolution much more extensively than, say, humans).

My question

Is there a logical argument according to which at least some part of biology isn't scientific?

  • 1
    This sounds like a specific instance of the Demarcation problem en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demarcation_problem . Perhaps that might be a good starting point? Not a direct answer but more a suggestion for where we might start to look for one! – Sofie Selnes Mar 24 '20 at 3:07
  • Your question is hard to answer without some context. WHY does this person think botany isn't a real science (and how do they define "real science")? I don't see why botany shouldn't have equal standing with zoology, which also embraces people who like to classify subspecies. – David Blomstrom Mar 24 '20 at 4:37
  • I seem to recall reading that Robert Rosen has argued that living organisms have non-computable models. The only reference I can find (quickly) this page on researchgate – Nick Mar 24 '20 at 4:51
  • biologists use the 'scientific method' as do other sciences. To extend the argument that it would appear you are asking, why wouldn't parts of theoretical mathematics, cosmology, and quantum theory also be considered 'unscientific?' – Swami Vishwananda Mar 24 '20 at 5:36
  • @SwamiVishwananda please see this post of mine to understand why I think what you said above is wrong: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/70369/…. – user44368 Mar 24 '20 at 6:30

There is work to be done within any science that is pre-scientific. Categorization is sometimes one of those things. There are assumptions behind the way one chooses to classify things, but it may not be theoretically based. You may be assuming that your language contains names for the right parts of things, for instance, so that you can describe the structures in a clear way. You may be making assumptions about simplicity and completeness in observed patterns, that are not really theories, just intellectual biases.

Until you can put your assumptions into a testable form, a lot of folks would not classify classification work as scientific, because if there were an alternative classification scheme, there would be no basis on which to compare their merits until you rooted around in your unconscious assumptions for justifications that you had not actually explicitly used when you did the work.

From a Popperian/Kuhnian point of view, such work is pre-scientific, and not scientific. So things like descriptive chemistry (the ability to identify compounds by looking at them or testing them in traditional ways, largely handed down from Alchemy), or the parts of the original Linnaean taxonomy that have not yet been reconciled with evolutionary theory, are chunks of chemistry and biology that are still pre-scientific. You still have to know what chemicals you are using, and you still need to name birds consistently across time, whether or not they are dinosaurs.

So the now-traditional demarcation criterion creates a chicken-and-egg problem. Not all of science can be scientific, some of it has to be done on the way up to a theory. And that part can be a lot of work. And it is still important and engaging: Darwin loved classifying worms, slowly working out his criteria over time. Mendeleev spent a lot of time just comparing abstract patterns of elements before he could present an overall structure that could then be tested by new entries. Clinical Psychology, as the ongoing pre-science with occasional scientific pretensions, spends tons of time arguing over what things are or are not diseases -- e.g. transsexual feelings, sex-avoidance, sex addiction, homosexuality, and pedophilia -- and which diseases are really different from one another in what ways -- Borderline Personality Disorder vs Explosive Impulse Control Disorders vs the Complex Multiple Minor Trauma version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder... Those judgments can only be scientifically theorized about properly once their statistical stability allows testing something.

So to a large degree, saying that is not derogatory, it is just necessary.

Some corners of different sciences, biology and psychology especially, are more full of such necessary, pre-scientific content than others.


I believe saying "Botany isn't a science" is merely meant to be derogatory, not a serious philosophical statement. The speaker simply doesn't respect Botany. It is intended in much the same vein as the assertion "Real Men don't eat quiche".

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