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What do the terms "science" and "the sciences" refer to: the natural sciences (physics, biology, ...) only or also all scholarly disciplines in general (including, e.g. psychology and sociology)?

I thought these terms can refer to all disciplines (depending on the context), at the very least, this meaning is not completely ruled out. This is also what I gather from some online dictionaries.

But yesterday I was told (by a non-native speaker) that "using the term 'science' for anything other than the natural sciences is bad english". Is that true?

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    According to Wikipedia, psychology and sociology come under social sciences. There may be differences of opinion as to what constitutes a science, but to say it's ' bad English' to use the term as you describe is nonsense. – Kate Bunting Jul 22 at 8:23
  • As one who has a masters degree in economics, “the dismal science” I am happy to say the social sciences are not “science”. It is fine to use the word “science” appended to “social” for these disciplines, but I do not believe we should refer to them as sciences. They can never lend themselves to true experiments, their will be no laws. They are not hard sciences. That in no way diminishes their value. – Patrick Jul 25 at 8:33
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A Wikipedia article "Science" gives a more comprehensive view of the application of the term than a dictionary could.

Wikipedia Science

It has sections about "natural sciences", "social sciences" and "formal sciences", listing some fields that fall under those terms.

I suspect that that non-native speaker wasn't a linguist. (Wikipedia classes "linguistics" under "social sciences".)

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From Wiktionary (see Usage Notes):

Since the middle of the 20th century, in English – but not in German – the term science was normally used to indicate the natural sciences (e.g., chemistry), the social sciences (e.g., sociology), and the formal sciences (e.g., mathematics). In the 18th and 19th centuries, the term was broader and encompassed scholarly study of the humanities (e.g., grammar) and the arts (e.g., music).


Usage has changed over time. Science is a rather new term, from the Latin root meaning knowledge. When the term was very new, many who today we would call scientists preferred the term natural philosopher. In contemporary, common usage, science generally refers to natural science. As such, social science is not included in science, but social science is used as a separate term. The sciences appears more often in literary contexts, and is more likely to include more than simply natural sciences. It is also used to emphasize the full range of scientific fields rather than a single practice. However, the usage of science to refer to all scholarship is historic only.

The older a source, the more likely it is that the author or speaker intended to include a greater range of fields when using either science or the sciences. The shifts in usage have been gradual. Usages are not fixed, even today. When you need to be clear, use the specific term, be it "natural science", "physical science" (not the same as physics), "medical science", "social science", "climate science", "data science", or any other.

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  • Thanks for your answer. Your first paragraph seems to me to be at odds with the quote from Wiktionary: there, science (currently, since the mid 20th century) does include the social sciences, but you write that it does not. Or is "currently" even more recent? Do you have any further sources (for your first paragraph)? – cheersmate Jul 28 at 8:49
  • @cheersmate: I believe that I understand the question. The term science appears in social science. I believe that Wiktionary intends to explain that we may describe economics but not music using the word science. My statement explains that science without social does not include chemistry. Therefore, both statements together gives us the following: chemistry is a science, economics is a social science, and the word science never may describe music. – epl Jul 28 at 9:17
  • "science without social does not include chemistry" ? – cheersmate Jul 28 at 11:48
  • "chemistry is a science, economics is a social science" -- but social sciences are science (according to Wiktionary), so chemistry is a science and a natural science, and economics is a science and a social science? – cheersmate Jul 28 at 11:49
  • @cheersmate: In current usage, science without social means natural science. Exceptions occur, but usually only within some particular context. The rule holds in general discussion, and certainly in popular media and vernacular conversation. The Wikipedia definition supports this rule. Look at the definition, and consider science in an uncountable usage. Usage (1) does not apply, because it is countable. Usage (2) is natural science. Usage (3) is not in use, and (4) is specialized. Usage (5) relates to the scientific method, which is in practice, is the same as (2). – epl Jul 29 at 3:35

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