Science is a word that carries with it many meanings - knowledge, truth, a process of examination. But when it comes to setting a clear definition of the term, difficulties arise. Certainly physics is science, and theology isn't. But many disciplines are less intuitively dichotomized, such as the fields of psychology, history, ethics, and many others. Are these sciences?
And while it may at first seem like a rather irrelevant issue only for lexicographers and philosophers, in fact the distinction between what is science and what is not is of great importance to society - for in the formation of the public school curriculum, the distinction between science, which must be taught, and religion, which must not be, is essential to keeping education both factual, up-to-date, and constitutional.
The 1982 court case McLean vs. Arkansas put in the public spotlight just how important drawing the distinction is. In what has become a landmark case in the creation/evolution legal debate, the Arkansas legislature passed without debate a bill mandating that the state redraw its science education standards so to include in the state's public high school curricula the body of ideas known as "creationism" - the notion that Earth and its inhabitant life forms were formed in the same forms as they are seen today - alongside evolution - the mainstream view of biologists holding that life developed and diversified gradually over millions of successive generations.
The concept of creationism has a strong religious history and very deep religious overtones, and the constitutionality of teaching the subject in a public school immediately was questioned. Called to preside over the resulting legal case was U.S. District Judge William Overton. Thus, in a very public arena, the question was put to Overton: exactly what characteristics distinguish science from nonscience, and did creationism have these characteristics?
After calling several expert witnesses to testify on the definitive characteristics of science and the precise details of creationism, Overton reached a conclusion: creationism is not science, it is religion. In his decision, he stated five characteristics he felt defined the essence of science:
(1) It is guided by natural law;
(2) It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
(3) It is testable against the empirical world;
(4) Its conclusions are tentative, i.e., are not necessarily the final word; and
(5) It is falsifiable.
[McLean v. Arkansas 36]
Overton stated, "Creation science… fails to meet these essential characteristics."
Overton was not a scientist. Are these criteria adequate to maintain an accurate distinction between science and nonscience? In this essay, two of these characteristics will be scrutinized in an attempt to answer this question.
The first of Overton's criteria states that science 'is guided by natural law.' This statement is difficult to interpret, because in no place in the decision is 'natural...