The term science gets bandied about so much that it is not always clear what is meant. This is fine in conversation, etc. But it becomes problematic when the question becomes, is there a proper domain for scientific research and development which can inform the scientific community about what is inside some bound of propriet; when selecting items for laboratory research? Other than counting upon 'good will and intentions', since some really unacceptable work has been 'committed', like Nazi medical 'research' and guinea-pigging US troops in atomic bomb testing, and even not informing very sick people who volunteer for pharma trials that they are receiving a placebo, cloning humans can be added to the list; is there such a definition? Suggesting that counting on the good will and best intentions of scientists has been shown to be unreliable. The same people who built the atomic bomb, including Einstein, asked that it not be used. So, obviously even the finest minds are confused on this issue. The philosophy of science should house the capability to assist the wide community of researchers with counsel and advice on which avenues in research are outside the bounds of ethical procedure. When offering a comment or answer to this question, please make reference to the paper, article or book and also give a brief capsule of what the author offers as a potential definition. Even if the SEP members can only provide an outline or suggestions for what might serve to inform research, that would be useful. Thanks in advance for your response to this, it appears to be an overlooked issue.

  • Overlooked it is not remotely. Closely related is this post. I'd recommend Conifold's answer.
    – J D
    Aug 14, 2020 at 16:18
  • No. But there is a mismatch between universally accepted definition of science-in-general and assisting researchers with counsel and advice as the goal. There are plenty of guidelines on laboratory research in specific sciences at specific times, but said research is too different in physics and biology, or today and in 1940s, for any timeless catchall guidelines to be feasible. As science is a diverse work in progress so are the guidelines for or definitions of it.
    – Conifold
    Aug 14, 2020 at 21:41
  • 1
    The title says "what constitutes science", but the question is mostly about what makes science ethical. I'd suggest bringing the title closer to the subject.
    – IMil
    Aug 17, 2020 at 4:48
  • Science is a practice or culture which has and is evolving, not a set of rules that apply algorithmically. Science is what scientists do - as unpacked philosophically here philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/74408/…
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 17, 2020 at 14:38
  • This is egregious: "The same people who built the atomic bomb, including Einstein, asked that it not be used. So, obviously even the finest minds are confused". Einstein in no way helped design the bomb (denied security clearance for 'pacifist tendencies'), or could have known his work would help make the bomb possible. What do you have against asking a bomb not be used? Humans can always misuse power, and greater power more-so. Pugwash nuclear conferences & chemical weapon ban did not come from philosophy of science. Scientists are morally autonomous, & accountable for their power.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 20, 2020 at 8:42

1 Answer 1


The short answer is there is no universal set of necessary and sufficient criteria to delineate what is science and what is not science.

This leads to a very complex discussion of how to separate science from pseudo-science. The demarcation of science is a well-known problem that can be dissolved by recognizing that some definitions are not in possession of such explicit criteria, but rather there is a graded membership based on an overlap of qualities whose entities may actually share no essence at all. This of course was recognized at least as early as late Wittegenstien's recognition of such a principle in his family resemblance passage.

It's best to recognize that there is no monolithic scientific method, but rather different domains of knowledge require different methods and none of them have a algorithm for converting observations to theories, though some have tried. The logical positivists, for instance, were represented by men like Hempel who articulated his deductive-model. Ultimately, the project of the logical positivists to eliminate subjectivity from science failed, as did their attempts to eliminate metaphysics on account of the normativity inherent in the scientific methods.

You have claimed that scientists' intentions of goodwill are unreliable, but this clearly misses the point. First, scientists and their methods are more about is than ought. Theories of ethics, such as deontological ethics, moral absolutism, and situational ethics are the speciality of ethicists, those vaunted philosophers who ply their reason within the context of value-laden human decision. Heck, it's arguable that most scientists even have any special expertise in the philosophy of science, but most scientists are engaged in what Kuhn in his Revolutions called normal science.

In fact, paradigm shifts are more the domain of expertise across the technicalities of specific sciences and an intuition about the philosophy of science, and Newton-Smith goes so far to say in his introduction of Blackwell's Companion to the Philosophy of Science states on page 6 states that "[s]cientists in particular sometimes express disappointment in philosophy of science.".

Of course, science and human values aren't incompatible, and many scientists have their own takes on ethics and morality and often politically advocate those views. But, science from a philosophical perspective is much more concerned with ontic and epistemological matters (the true and real), then it is in questions of beauty and virtue (aesthetics and ethics). Science is a universal path to truth and reality precisely because it does not seek to settle whether Gould's NOMA is a better choice than showing God is a very poor scientfic theory like Dawkins.

And, to fault Oppenheimer for the bomb used after Stagg Field, or more generally scientists for the woes of society is just scapegoating. Nazi eugenics was inspired by American slavery and Jim crow far more than it was evolutionary theory, and the decision to drop the bomb was widely made prior Ike and Truman ordering the Enola Gay to let loose a new era of warfare. One might even argue that these events are the fault of religions which are often a confusing mishmash of ethical theories and misleading myths, when leaders of societies and the people that constitute them should be listening more to ethicists and scientists about what is true, real, good, and beautiful.

  • @JD- Splendid, I am certain that each of us have gained some clarity on the issue, Thank you, JD. The bit at the end was a bit much what with confusing science with 'truth and beauty', whereas it's pragmatic value is all that's required. As for the bomb itself, dropping it saved hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers lives from participating in an assault on Japan. So, bizarrely enough Oppenheimer, et all, saved the Japanese from complete annihilation. It's a grizzly thought but probably a true one.
    – user37981
    Aug 15, 2020 at 3:46
  • "You have claimed that scientists' intentions of goodwill are unreliable, but this clearly misses the point. Science is a universal path to truth and reality precisely because it does not seek to settle whether Gould's NOMA is a better choice than showing God is a very poor scientific theory." And; ..."scientists and their methods are more about is than ought." Both of these remarks can only be regarded as the words of what J D himself has termed, 'a true believer'. Science being about 'is' presupposes that the act of doing science results in some form of objective truth. No one believes that.
    – user37981
    Aug 15, 2020 at 14:17
  • 1
    Well Charles, I disagree very hearilty with the claim that science's central pursuit is not the construction of a social reality built around the establishment of objective truth. I propose you ask the question of whether it is or isn't, and I'll respond to put forth why my assertion is consistent. :D Well, met!
    – J D
    Aug 15, 2020 at 14:32
  • "to fault Oppenheimer" There's an implicit straw man, the idea he was exceptionally or solely responsible. But to say he had no responsibility - that is very problematic. Einstein felt deep responsibility, so much so he regretted publishing his work on relativity. There was complex reasoning, sure. But responsible scientists agonised about setting the atmosphere on fire, nuclear winter, & widespread fallout. And leading physicists like Murray Gell-Man helped change policy. Scientists are responsible for what they choose to work on, and good ones know it, they don't say 'just following orders'
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 17, 2020 at 15:03
  • @CriglCragl It was rhetorical metonymy, not a literal assertion, but I'm glad you tried to parry. It does demonstrate that scientists are generlly concerned citizens.
    – J D
    Aug 18, 2020 at 23:28

You must log in to answer this question.