Any Field That Had the Word “Science” in Its Name Was Guaranteed Thereby Not To Be a Science

Frank Harary? Gerald M. Weinberg? Marshall C. Yovits? Max Goldstein? Richard Feynman? Anonymous?

science14Dear Quote Investigator: The participants in several fields of endeavor have selected names that include the word “science”, e.g., Political Science, Information Science, Military Science, Library Science, Domestic Science, and Computer Science. This motley collection inspired the following quip:

Anything with “science” in its name is not a science.

Would you please explore the origin of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Because this jest can be expressed in many ways it is difficult to trace. The data below is not presented as definitive; it is being shared so that others may have a starting point to build upon.

In 1975 Gerald M. Weinberg published “An Introduction to General Systems Thinking”, and the first chapter ended with a set of exercises. The seventh exercise presented a jocular law which Weinberg attributed to Frank Harary who was a prominent mathematician in the field of graph theory. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The misnaming of fields of study is so common as to lead to what might be general systems laws. For example, Frank Harary once suggested the law that any field that had the word “science” in its name was guaranteed thereby not to be a science. He would cite as examples Military Science, Library Science, Political Science, Homemaking Science, Social Science, and Computer Science.

This citation was the earliest known to QI though the joke referred to some domains of thought which were named many decades before the 1970s. QI suspects that this citation can be antedated.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1979 the educator and researcher Marshall C. Yovits wrote a column in the “Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science”, and he ascribed an instance of the joke to an unnamed friend: 2

We have not yet succeeded in defining even information in an intellectually satisfying way—certainly not in general, measurable, and quantifiable terms or even in useful terms.

Information science is, of course, not the only “science” or pseudo-science in this situation: library science, military science, and even computer science come to mind. A friend once said that if a discipline needs the word “science” in its name, it isn’t one.

In 1992 the book “Toward a Unified Ecology” presented a version of the saying: 3

An ungenerous view would say that anything which puts “science” in its title is not science at all: social science, political science, library science, domestic science, and so on. All these “sciences” deal with messy systems where controlled experiment is often impossible

In 2007 the computer scientist Paul W. Abrahams was interviewed by a group who were documenting the history of computers and computing. Abrahams attributed the saying to another researcher: 4

ABRAHAMS: That’s right. Remember I mentioned Max Goldstein at NYU? I still remember something he said, which is, anything with “science” in its name is not a science.

NORBERG: Why is that?

ABRAHAMS: He mentioned social science. Computer science. He mentioned a couple of others, to which I added Christian Science.

In 2008 a participant in a panel discussion at a computer science conference credited the famous physicist Richard Feynman with a version of the saying: 5

David R. Vance: . . . If Richard Feynman is correct that “Any field which has to have ‘science’ in its name isn’t one,” then CS need not be called a science.

In conclusion, based on current evidence the mathematician Frank Harary can be credited with this quip. Future research may help to clarify the genesis of the saying.

Image Notes: “Elements of Military Science” is from a book cover in 1909. Image for Westfield Domestic Science School is from the website ephemerastudies.org which states that the illustration is from a booklet that was sponsored by McClure magazines in 1915/16. “Political Science Quarterly” is from a journal cover in 1901.

(Great thanks to Joe McCarthy @gumption whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1975, An Introduction to General Systems Thinking by Gerald M. Weinberg, Chapter 1: The Problem, (Questions for Further Research: Exercise 7), Quote Page 24 and 25, Published by John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1979 December, Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, Volume 6, Number 2, Endpoint: Information Science, Decision-Making, and Management Information Systems by Marshall C. Yovits, Start page 52, Quote Page 52, Column 2, Published by American Society for Information Science, Washington, D.C. (Google Books Snippet View; This citation has not yet been verified on paper; data may be inaccurate)
  3. 1992, Toward a Unified Ecology by Timothy F. H. Allen and Thomas W. Hoekstra, Quote Page 259, Columbia University Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  4. Proceeding ACM Oral History interviews, Interview Number 9, Interview conducted on October 15, 16, and 17, 2007, Interviewer: Arthur Norberg, Interviewee: Paul W. Abrahams, Location: Deerfield, Massachusetts, Session 2, Start Page 48, Quote Page 91, Published by Association for Computing Machinery, New York. (ACM Digital Library)
  5. 2008 May, Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, Volume 23, Issue 5, Cultural, sociological, and experiential challenges for CIS education: Panel Discussion with Four Participants, (Speaker: David R. Vance of Quinnipiac University), Start Page 212, Quote Page 215, Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges, USA, Archived by Association for Computing Machinery, New York. (ACM Digital Library)