What is science? To some, science refers to difficult high school or college-level courses such as physics, chemistry, and biology meant only for the brightest students. To others, science is a craft practiced by scientists in white coats using specialized equipment in their laboratories. Etymologically, the word “science” is derived from the Latin word scientia meaning knowledge. Science refers to a systematic and organized body of knowledge in any area of inquiry that is acquired using “the scientific method” (the scientific method is described further below). Science can be grouped into two broad categories: natural science and social science. Natural science is the science of naturally occurring objects or phenomena, such as light, objects, matter, earth, celestial bodies, or the human body. Natural sciences can be further classified into physical sciences, earth sciences, life sciences, and others. Physical sciences consist of disciplines such as physics (the science of physical objects), chemistry (the science of matter), and astronomy (the science of celestial objects). Earth sciences consist of disciplines such as geology (the science of the earth). Life sciences include disciplines such as biology (the science of human bodies) and botany (the science of plants). In contrast, social science is the science of people or collections of people, such as groups, firms, societies, or economies, and their individual or collective behaviors. Social sciences can be classified into disciplines such as psychology (the science of human behaviors), sociology (the science of social groups), and economics (the science of firms, markets, and economies).
The natural sciences are different from the social sciences in several respects. The natural sciences are very precise, accurate, deterministic, and independent of the person making the scientific observations. For instance, a scientific experiment in physics, such as measuring the speed of sound through a certain media or the refractive index of water, should always yield the exact same results, irrespective of the time or place of the experiment, or the person conducting the experiment. If two students conducting the same physics experiment obtain two different values of these physical properties, then it generally means that one or both of those students must be in error. However, the same cannot be said for the social sciences, which tend to be less accurate, deterministic, or unambiguous. For instance, if you measure a person’s happiness using a hypothetical instrument, you may find that the same person is more happy or less happy (or sad) on different days and sometimes, at different times on the same day. One’s happiness may vary depending on the news that person received that day or on the events that transpired earlier during that day. Furthermore, there is not a single instrument or metric that can accurately measure a person’s happiness. Hence, one instrument may calibrate a person as being “more happy” while a second instrument may find that the same person is “less happy” at the same instant in time. In other words, there is a high degree of measurement error in the social sciences and there is considerable uncertainty and little agreement on social science policy decisions. For instance, you will not find many disagreements among natural scientists on the speed of light or the speed of the earth around the sun, but you will find numerous disagreements among social scientists on how to solve a social problem such as reduce global terrorism or rescue an economy from a recession. Any student studying the social sciences must be cognizant of and comfortable with handling higher levels of ambiguity, uncertainty, and error that come with such sciences, which merely reflects the high variability of social objects.
Sciences can also be classified based on their purpose. Basic sciences, also called pure sciences, are those that explain the most basic objects and forces, relationships between them, and laws governing them. Examples include physics, mathematics, and biology. Applied sciences, also called practical sciences, are sciences that apply scientific knowledge from basic sciences in a physical environment. For instance, engineering is an applied science that applies the laws of physics and chemistry for practical applications such as building stronger bridges or fuel efficient combustion engines, while medicine is an applied science that applies the laws of biology for solving human ailments. Both basic and applied sciences are required for human development. However, applied sciences cannot stand on their own right, but instead relies on basic sciences for its progress. Of course, the industry and private enterprises tend to focus more on applied sciences given their practical value, while universities study both basic and applied sciences.