Neeper: What Is Science?

Formerly of Los Alamos

In the news media, both national and local politicians say the COVID virus will be managed “according to science”. I presume they mean that the virus is transmitted mainly by exhaled droplets, and therefore that officials may claim scientific reasoning to impose social distancing and face coverings.

We don’t know the extent to which a person acquires immunity or becomes noninfectious after surviving the disease. COVID-19 has been confirmed in pet cats and dogs, but transmission from pet to human is rare. That’s the current extent of the politically relevant science.

With little yet known about COVID-19, why do politicians revert to “science” as their authoritative guide when many political supporters refuse to “believe” in vaccination or global warming? Science is not a belief system, although it does require faith that the universe will behave tomorrow in the same way it behaved yesterday.

While I write this, an invasive ad on my screen blasts “We can’t cure COVID-19 by giving up our privacy”. That word “cure” mixes medical science with the social mores of “privacy”. Privacy is a set of political expectations or desires that might impede application of the cure, but a scientific cure for COVID is not threatened by privacy.

What is science, anyway?

It’s common to regard science as a collection of facts. However, as Poincare’ said a century ago, “a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house”. Science is the process of connecting facts with a logical structure that enables prediction of a future fact–the outcome of a future test or measurement.

Scientific theory is the logical structure that connects facts and enables prediction.

Often, the public uses the term, “theory” to mean “opinion”, but in the sciences the two terms have different meanings. In the physical sciences, that logical structure is expressed in mathematics.

Theory is a way to to characterize previous events and to predict future events, an organization that is always subject to test by a new measurement. It makes the world predictable. Prior to scientific theory, we tried to explain the world by magic.

Editor’s note: Don Neeper worked on weapon theory, solar buildings and environmental restoration at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Visit his website at