The term descriptive science is used to identify a category of science and distinguish it from other categories of science. The exact demarcation line can vary a bit depending on the purpose of making the distinction, but essentially it refers to those parts of science whose emphasis lies in accurate repeatable descriptions such as:
- X causes A in circumstances B.
Niiniluoto suggests that the distinction between what he calls descriptive sciences and design sciences is fundamental. "Descriptive sciences primarily aim to describe, explain and understand the reality surrounding us. Design sciences, on the other hand, aim at knowledge that is useful for the activity of design, i.e. aim to enhance human art and skill."
David A. Grimaldi and Michael S. Engel suggest that descriptive science in biology is currently undervalued and misunderstood. "“Descriptive” in science is a pejorative, almost always preceded by “merely,” and typically applied to the array of classical -ologies and -omies: anatomy, archaeology, astronomy, embryology, morphology, paleontology, taxonomy, botany, cartography, stratigraphy, and the various disciplines of zoology, to name a few. [...] First, an organism, object, or substance is not described in a vacuum, but rather in comparison with other organisms, objects, and substances. [...] Second, descriptive science is not necessarily low-tech science, and high tech is not necessarily better. [...] Finally, a theory is only as good as what it explains and the evidence (i.e., descriptions) that supports it."
"[A]ll researchers interpret the world through some sort of conceptual lens formed by their beliefs, previous experiences, existing knowledge, assumptions about the world and theories about knowledge and how it is accrued. The researcher’s conceptual lens acts as a filter: the importance placed on the huge range of observations made in the field (choosing to record or note some observations and not others, for example) is partly determined by this filter"-Carroll and Swatman
A negative attitude by scientists toward descriptive science is not limited to biological disciplines: Lord Rutherford's notorious quote, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting," displays a clear negative attitude about descriptive science, and it is known that he was dismissive of astronomy, which at the beginning of the 20th Century was still gathering largely descriptive data about stars, nebulae, and galaxies, and was only beginning to develop a satisfactory integration of these observations within the framework of physical law, a cornerstone of the philosophy of physics.
Sources and notes
- Heikki J. Koskinen et al. (eds.) Science – A Challenge to Philosophy? - Peter Lang GmbH, Frankfurt am Man, 2006. article The scope and limits of value-freedom in science - Panu Raatikainen
- BioScience Volume 57, Issue 8 (September 2007) article Why Descriptive Science Still Matters by D.A. Grimaldi & M.S. Engel
- Kirsti E. Berntsen, Jennifer Sampson and Thomas Østerlie. "Interpretive Science's Applications in Computers". Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Retrieved 21 October 2010.