These are broad questions, much like ones raised by our technical consultant, Ali G. (He also asks, ’What is barely science?’ , perhaps inspired by the film, "Barely Science, 3".) Nonetheless, I’ll give a straight, fuzzy, answer.
Science is an attempt to get a correct clear picture of the world by using some ordinary methods in a systematic way. These are:
1. Observations. As much as possible, scientists check claims by some sort of experiment or observation.
2. Consistency and logic, including math. We are not content when different rules are contradictory, but try to find some more general rules that include the various cases. We try to make the rules definite enough to allow the use of mathematical reasoning to draw inferences.
3. Simplicity. Rather than use a collection of special rules for detailed situations, we look for rules with very wide applicability and as simple a form as possible.
4. Cooperative procedures. Nobody can observe or calculate everything on her own. We need some sort of ways to trade information and test each other’s claims.
Obviously, the whole business requires some willingness to doubt, but not getting paralyzed by complete doubt.
As for the ’opposite of science’, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. What’s the opposite of an elephant? However, obviously when people make all sort of confident assertions, with no attention to whether they fit observation or even whether they’re self-consistent, that’s about as unscientific as you can get. You don’t have to look far.
Now about ’barely scientific’....
In the nonscientific department, there is a lot that looks like science. The Greek prefix is "pseudo" for "looks like", giving rise to the term "pseudoscience". Among the popular confident assertions without proof or even in conflict with available evidence are claims of the paranormal, claims of miraculous health cures with no intervention (or intervetions that really don’t do anything, like putting magnets over your body), sightings of UFO’s or ghosts, ESP, and other weird stuff. A good book is "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time", by Michael Shermer.
A favorite resource on the web is Bob Parke’s weekly column, "What’s New" Here at the American Physical Society
. He regularly lampoons pseudoscience and science-lookalike fraud, especially if it affects policy decisions, money being spent, or misleads a large number of people.
(republished on 07/12/06)