Structure of science

The order and manner of scientific discovery is often obscured by the manner in which the results are put forth and, later, by the way it is taught in schools and colleges. Science puts high onus on logic and rigour. Certain structural features of the scientific edifice that scientists build up are explained here.


Quite often when explanations are attempted, we may need to formulate new concepts. The words that are used for the new concepts may have some connotations that are incidental because of common use. These have to be removed so that what follows the definition in a scientific argument is precise and does not lead to any ambiguity.

For example, in physics, “work done” is defined as the force applied on a body multiplied by the distance it moves. So, you may sit at the editing suite and edit a programme in eight hours. But you would have done much less work than a person climbing a flight of stairs in a few minutes. This is acceptable within the context of classical mechanics.

A definition is neither true nor false. In a scientific work, if you see a definition, accept it without question. But if the word that is defined is used with any other meaning within the scientific work, you could criticize it. Thus, you may accept the definition of work done given in classical physics, though the ordinary use of the phrase may have a wider meaning. Thus, if you find any discrepancy when you replace “work done” by “force applied multiplied by distance moved”, you could raise questions. The definition has to be consistent within a body of work.

Many arguments – even between friends or colleagues – may continue ad nauseam if nobody bothers to define the words used. The tendency to define terms precisely and use them consistently is not shared by some softer sciences. Some textbooks on sociology or psychology may provide alternative definitions and proceed without using any of them consistently, later, in the discussions.


Theory, axioms, postulates

In coffee-table conversations, the words, “hypothesis” and “theory”, are used quite loosely. They tend to mean the same thing. But theories are much larger constructs than hypotheses. While a hypothesis is formulated in one (or few) sentence(s), theories have quite a few deductively arrived at sentences – mathematical or plain day-to-day language.

The scientific theory

I like best is that the

rings of Saturn are

composed entirely of

lost airline luggage.

Mark Russ

When scientists formulate theories, they try to make   their assumptions very clear. Generally, theories are put forth at the very beginning and are called postulates (or, rarely, axioms). The deductive logic that follows may also use well-established facts, hypotheses, laws or principles. Like hypotheses, theories are tested through experiments. And, quite often, predictive power is a testing stone against which theories are evaluated.

The discovery of new planets based on Newton’s theories and the finding that light bends when travelling through gravitational fields, based on Einstein’s theory, are typical examples of the discovery of new phenomena based on theories.

The principle of the axiomatic method of theory building is based on Euclid’s geometry, in which a whole host of geometrical results could be derived from a few postulates. A totally new geometry can be constructed if the axioms are changed.

However, this is not normally done in science. The experimental corroboration of a theory increases the trustworthiness of the axioms/postulates that it uses.

Laws, principles

Laws and principles have more or less the same standing in science. They form the backbone of explanations. To explain the motion of planets, we use Newton’s laws of motion. To explain the behaviour of inanimate objects on earth, we may have to use laws of friction as well.

Unlike traffic laws or criminal laws, when scientific laws are broken, nobody is punished. Instead, the laws have to be discarded.