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investigations on the various stadia of antiquity were scientifically valuable even though they overestimated their

investigations on the various stadia of
antiquity were scientifically valuable even though they overestimated their


investigations on the various stadia of antiquity were scientifically valuable even though they overestimated their



science. No ready-made decision formulae may be expected when such
general concepts as science are discussed. Along with any science, methodological
criteria of what is scientific arise and develop.
Thus would it be correct to predict right now that ultimately the answer
to our question would be ‘Science is what people call so-and-so’? Why then
the circumstantial preparations? Because they convey the shades of meaning.
A blunt answer needs to be intelligible. Indeed, in the clause “what people
call so-and-so”, what is meant by ‘what’, by ‘people’, by ‘call’, by ‘so-and-so’?
Does ‘what’ mean one thing or a disconnected variety? Who are the ‘people’?
What is the ‘so-and-so’ aiming at? And does ‘call’ really read as a present tense,
or should it mean a past or a future, or is its mood indicative, subjunctive or
conditional?
Moreover, would it not perhaps be better to pattern the answer as ‘Science
is what people perform as such’? Many times I have pointed out that
expressions like ‘language’, ‘music’, ‘mathematics’ mean not only a stock, the
result of some activity, but also the activity itself. And though everybody
would admit this as a triviality as far as language and music are concerned, it
is not the same with mathematics. In fact, mathematics as a human activity
is little known, and probably the double meaning of ‘science’ is not much
better understood.
My question aims at elucidating some facts related to the question: is not
scientific substance in science more determined by the way it is performed
than by its mere being?
2. RELEVANCE
Should not the first relation to be scrutinized be that between science and
truth? Is not truth the first criterion of what is scientific?
Well, truth is certainly not a universal criterion. Truth is faced differently
in the various sciences. In mathematics truth is an easier touchstone than in
the inorganic natural sciences; in the latter it is easier than in biology; and
passing through the spectrum of sciences from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ truth, the social
sciences range far beyond philology and history. But this does not mean that
the sciences at the hard end are more immune to non-science and pseudoscience.
On the contrary, as examples will show, scientific mischief is even
more rampant at the hard end. Likewise the diagnosis of what is non-scientific
and pseudo-scientific need not be easier with hardness than with softness. It is

worthwhile stressing this because at the hard end people are prone to deny
the soft end its scientific character, whereas at the soft end people often react
to this attitude with inferiority feelings and over-estimating harder sciences.
But this is not the reason why I do not feel justified in handling truth as
a criterion of scientific character. What annoys me is the wrong perspective.
Truth is a property of propositions, but science is not a conjunction of
propositions. To start with the most obvious, a science knows queries too,
which can often be more important than propositions. Truth as a criterion of
scientificality aims at science as a stock. But scientific character or its lack
can be assigned to a problem, an approach, a method, even though the
results they give birth to are not true. Criteria, however, by which the scientific
character of a query can be judged are of the kind: Does the query fit
into our scientific activity? Is it useful? Is it promising? Is it not too easy?
Is it not too difficult? And most of all: Is it correctly posed? Moreover, is
not the most important feature in a query, more than the answer, the desire
to pass from a badly formulated to a better formulated problem?
A query should be relevant. An example will show what I mean by this.
In the third century B.C., we are told, Eratosthenes measured the Earth.
By means of a sundial be could ascertain that the meridional arc from his
dwelling place, Alexandria, to Syene, south of Alexandria, on the tropic, at
the first Nile cataracts, was one fiftieth of the terrestrial circumference –
indeed when on midsummer day at Syene the sun stood at the zenith, it was
one fiftieth of a full circle off the zenith at Alexandria. Eratosthenes is said
to have had the distance from Alexandria to Syene measured. It came out
to be 5000 stadia, which meant 250 000 stadia for the whole terrestrial
circumference. But what do we know about the length of the stadion (= 100
fathoms = a sprinter’s distance)? The Olympic stadium was 180 metres long,
but it was the longest of all stadia in Greek antiquity. In the past century
philologists tried hard to find out which stadion Eratosthenes could have
used, but notwithstanding all efforts the problem remained unsolved until
half a century later somebody cut the Gordian knot: the query – he decided
– which stadion Eratosthenes had meant, was irrelevant. The round figure of
5000 stadia indicates that even if Eratosthenes had really measured rather than
estimated the distance from Alexandria to Syene, his measurement cannot
have been decently accurate. The figure 5000 leads one to presume an actual
result between 4500 and 5500 stadia, which means an error of 10% on either




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