Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | December 23, 2008

Scientific Disciplines

Ok; so, you ‘get’ that science is empirical and about process.  In particular, it’s about observation and experimentation under controlled situations. Science also is about repeatability.  That means the results obtained from an experiment must be obtained again—preferably by a different experimenter—using the same materials, methods and conditions as in the original experiment.  Experimental results are considered spurious if they cannot be repeated.


That is all very good.  However, defining science only by its process is like defining a heart only by its function.  Knowing only its function you might be hard pressed to identify a heart from among other organs on a dissecting table. You can learn what science ‘looks like’—understand some of its anatomy—by considering the subject areas in which the scientific process is used.


Science is often divided into two broad subject categories: social science and natural science.  The social sciences study human societies and individual relationships within them. Anthropology, economics, history, political science, psychology, and sociology are usually counted as social sciences.  The natural sciences seek to explain the physical and natural world; today, the term ‘science’ is often used as shorthand for ‘natural science’.  Astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics and their many cross-disciplines (e.g., biochemistry and biophysics) are included as natural sciences.  The natural sciences are subdivided into the physical sciences (e.g., astronomy, chemistry, earth science, and physics) and the biological sciences (e.g., botany, ecology, genetics, physiology, and zoology).  Sometimes the natural sciences are referred to as the “hard sciences” because of their heavy dependence on quantitative data collected from experiments.


The cut separating social from natural sciences is not very clean.  For example, some psychologists are primarily biologists who study the physiology of the human nervous system and its effects on behavior.  Similarly, physical anthropologists may study anatomy and human evolution making them as much natural scientists as social scientists.


Both the social and natural sciences can be divided into ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ categories.  Pure science—often referred to as theoretical, basic or fundamental science—seeks to generate new knowledge that increases our understanding of phenomena.   Applied science uses knowledge to develop solutions to problems (i.e., it develops technologies).  For example, anatomy, histology and physiology are pure sciences—while the agricultural and medical sciences are applied sciences.  Again, though, the cut between pure and applied science is not clean—there are aspects of the other in each of them.


The engineering disciplines are a subcategory of applied science. These include biomedical, chemical, civil, computer, electrical, and mechanical engineering.  A common thread running through the engineering disciplines, in addition to their problem-solving orientation, is their significant reliance on mathematics and physics. 


This classification of the sciences sometimes masks their historical development. For example, although engineering applies scientific knowledge in developing solutions, engineering is actually older than science as a discipline.  Though its roots go back to the ancient world, modern science truly developed with the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. However, some of the principles of modern engineering can be recognized in such ancient feats as the construction of the Roman aqueducts and Egyptian pyramids.


So, being a high school student, how do you use this information?  The most obvious way to use it is by preparing yourself for college.  The better you understand what science is, as a prospective science major, the better you can map out your high school course selections.  For example, understanding science as a process highlights the importance of statistics (especially the areas of hypothesis testing and experimental design). Taking a statistics course in high school is a great way to prepare for majoring in either the social or natural sciences.


Also, if you are an aspiring science major, but do not feel a strong attraction to either the natural or social sciences, then you might consider a college that offers majors in both areas.  This will make it easier to switch fields if you do not like your original choice.   Likewise, sometimes a student enters an engineering major with a strong mathematics background, but is then completely turned-off by what he or she perceives as the tedium of studying solutions to boring problems.  That student’s life might be made easier at a university that had both strong pure science and engineering programs.


Use your time in high school to learn more about the many academic majors offered by universities and the academic preparation you will need for your chosen major.  It will help ensure that you have a happy college experience.




World’s top Social Science schools—


World’s top Natural Science schools—




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