What is Science? What is Technology?
And what is the relationship between them?
This page is about the meaning of ‘science’ and ‘technology’, with special emphasis on the often misunderstood relationship between science and technology, and it also serves as an introduction to the idea of social technology.
Living here on a small island, off of Canada’s west coast, I am surrounded by the beauty of nature and the peace that comes with an attractive environment. Perhaps because of the beauty of the local environment, we have on this island many people who think of themselves as environmentalists.
I’d like to introduce my views on science and technology by discussing first the one very misunderstood word which always comes up around here when anyone talks about environmentalism, and that is the word `technology.’ Many environmentalist take that as a dirty word, and say they are opposed to technology, which they blame for many of the current threats to our environment. I think that view is based on a mistake, one which comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between science technology.
As long as I can remember, I have been interested in technology. But for most of that time I had a very limited and distorted view of what ‘technology’ means. Like many other people, I confused technology with hardware, and believed it was something invented by scientists. As a child I had a passion for collecting odd bits of machinery and electrical things, and dreamed of being a scientist. Scientists not only had enormous prestige, but they obviously had the best toys, and their careers seemed to consist of making more of them.
I recall that as a junior high-school student I went to an Open House at the University of British Columbia, where they invited the public to visit all the labs and facilities. Most interesting to me, of course, were the buildings of the Science Faculty, particularly Physics and Chemistry. We also visted the various engineering departments in the Faculty of Applied Science.
The very name “Applied Science” seemed to convey a lesser status, and my overwhelming impression is of large grey machines and something like a machine shop. Though I personally liked working with machinery and even doing metal work, I had hated the Grade 9 Industrial Arts course I had to take, and imagined that engineering was just the university equivalent of Industrial Arts.
All this was totally unfair to engineering and technology, words that I didn’t really understand until long after I went through university. As a child, what I liked best was to take apart some salvaged piece of an old car, or other bit of machinery, to see how it worked. I loved ingenious things, cleverly designed parts that worked together in interesting ways. What I hated about junior high-school Industrial Arts was the total absence of anything ingenious or clever. We seemed to spend all our time filing pieces of metal into uninteresting shapes.
But in fact the words “ingenious” and “engineering” both come from the same Latin root, `ingenium’, meaning cleverness or natural capability, and the essence of engineering has always been the application of human ingenuity, the clever contrivance of devices.
Closely related to engineering is technology. In high school we learned that the ending “-ology” meant “study of”, so that technology might be described as the study of techniques. I think it is more in keeping with the original Greek root to gloss “-ology” as “discussion of”, which is what the ancient Greeks did to study anything: they sat around and talked about it. What seemed most conspicuously absent in Industrial Arts 9 was any discussion of techniques; the teacher would tell us one way of doing something, like filing that piece of metal, and we would spend the rest of the period doing it.
I am fascinated by ingenious devices, and love to talk about techniques for making such devices, whether they be made of metal or exist entirely in software. But there was no engineering or technology listed in my high-school curriculum, only the boring Industrial Arts courses and what was called Science.
All through high-school I was an exceptional science student, i.e. nerd, but I never really understood what science was about. What I liked best about science was actually the technology involved in it.
Galileo’s discovery of the phases of the moons of Jupiter was actually of much less interest to me than the telescope he used in the process. If I dreamed of space travel, it was not because of any excitement over what we could learn about the moons of Jupiter from close up, but because of the rocket ships that would get us there.
Science class was almost universally hated by my fellow students, who found it boring. I can’t blame them for this, since the school managed to make the most interesting aspects of science tedious.
I remember one junior high-school science class in which the teacher explained how atoms had little hard cores around which electrons went in circular orbits. Now first of all, that just isn’t true, and real scientists had known it isn’t true for at least 30 years. But more important, it meant that one of the most interesting stories in the history of science, something that might have gotten a few students to pay attention, was being glossed over, replaced by a dry account of one particular, very obsolete, model.
At the time, I had just recently read about the early days of atomic physics, which I found fascinating because of the ingenious techniques and equipment used in the experiments. I remember annoying the teacher and the other students by trying to describe a more recent model of the atom, but that didn’t accomplish much. There was no time to go into the story I had read about the early years of quantum mechanics, and without that story, there wasn’t much I could say that would interest anyone.
The word `Science’ comes from the Latin word for knowledge, and means a specific kind of knowledge, the kind that answers questions about “what”, or “why”. Some people ask such questions a lot, and are interested in knowledge for its own sake, but most people are not. Rather more of us are interested in the other kind of knowledge, “know-how”, the knowledge of how to do something. This is a knowledge of techniques for doing things, and is the subject of technology.
I was fascinated by the technology or “know-how” of vacuum pumps and particle accellerators, and incidently learned some of the factual knowledge that was acquired by using these devices. The story of how these devices were invented and used was of great interest to me, and I wished I could have shared it with some of my fellow students, who might then have understood some of my enthusiasm for this apparently dry subject.
In other areas the distinction between scientific and technological knowledge is also important, and again the technological “know-how” is often neglected. I was rather a poor history student in high-school, partly because the techniques of archeology and document research by which historical knowledge is obtained were never discussed. We learned the name and dates of various kings and queens, but never had any introduction to the methods and techniques of the the historian.
This is particularly unfortunate, because technological knowledge is very much more durable than scientific knowledge. Even if a new technique is discovered with makes an old one obsolete, the old one is still usable. In school we learned few techniques, and a lot of supposed facts, many of which we now recognize as false. Reading old high-school textbooks is a rather shocking experience: much of what we were taught as kids just wasn’t right.
My current view is that technology is the most important of human endeavors, and includes the study of all techniques used in any aspects of human life. To me, law and politics is technology, as is medicine, agriculture, forestry, and any other area in which human ingenuity is applied. Many of these disciplines have associated sciences, but in many cases the technology is more highly developed than the science.
It seems obvious to me that engineering is not just “Applied Science”, but the application of technological knowledge, or “know-how”, which is logically independent of science, and may even be logically prior to science, as it is historically prior. People usually learned how to do something before they learned what was actually happening or why it worked. People learned to brew beer before the enzymatic actions of yeast were understood, they learned to smelt metals before the oxidation-reduction reactions were understood, and they learned to make concrete before the chemistry of tobermorphite gels was understood.
Some people use the word `Science’ to mean the body of scientific knowledge itself; I have no quarrel with that. But those who use it to mean the process and methods of discovery are referring to what I now think of as a branch of technology, a form of engineering. There are various techniques used to discover, validate, and gather scientific knowledge. The study of these techniques is one branch of technology. Their application is engineering. And their results are scientific knowledge.
All this discussion of science and engineering is a preamble to what I really want to talk about, which is social science and social technology, including social engineering — a term with many negative connotations. As a person who has spent a lot of time reading historical and political novels as well as non-fiction books on history and politics, the term `social engineering’ has a dark, unpleasant resonance, conjuring up images of totalitarian states and horrible technocratic “utopias” in which the people are oppressed by the engineers of the state. So I minimize my use of ‘social engineering’, and talk mostly about ‘social technology’ instead.
In this Atomic Age, when the threats of nuclear terrorism and environmental disaster are growing, it is not surprising to meet people who describe themselves as “Luddites” or “technophobes.” To such a person any talk of social engineering must have a particularly unpleasant ring.
But to me, social engineering is all around us, always has been, and always will be, since it means just the application of techniques for organizing or managing society. There is a very legitimate fear, however, since engineers are prone to a particular form of sin, which in the field of social engineering has very unpleasant consequences indeed.
As I have said, the essence of engineering is the ingenious design, and to many engineers the design and implementation of their contrivances is all of engineering. But designs have a way of capturing the minds of their creators, and so we have the particular sin of the engineer: the implementation of something undesirable and unwanted simply because it is an exciting design, a good solution to a “technically sweet” problem, something fun to work on.
An instance of the solution to Robert Oppenheimer’s “technically sweet” problem, as he called it, was dropped on Hiroshima — something that should give us all second thoughts about interesting problems.
The engineer’s sin is made possible by lax requirements analysis, and indeed, the analysis phase of engineering is often badly done. Engineering is filled with examples of good solutions to the wrong problem, brought about by bad analysis.
Most often bad engineering shows up in unwanted side effects. People want refrigeration, for example, but a side effect of the production of millions of refrigerators might be a hole in the ozone layer. Oops! Was this bad engineering? Well, yes. Good engineering includes consideration for side effects, even unknown and unanticipated one. The trouble is that the responsibility for the failure to anticipate the effects of releasing nasty gases into the atmosphere is almost as well diffused as the gases themselves.
But good social engineering, as I understand the term — good social technology, at least, would include the invention of tools and techniques for making society work, so that the concerns of the most farsighted and environmentally sensitive people get integrated into the process by which society creates and manages its physical technology.
For more information on social technology, please see my social technology page . For more information on requirements analysis and the engineer’s sin, please look at my page on the role of requirements analysis in social technology.
Copyright © 1992 and1998 Douglas P. Wilson