Is there really one single thing called science, and has it ever been apolitical?

Science is a fairly recent invention, while ‘scientist’ was coined less then 200 years ago

One of the most interesting developments during the coronavirus pandemic has been the increased visibility of public health experts. How many of us, this time last year, could have named the State's chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, or predicted that he would be interviewed on the Late Late Show?

The UK's softly spoken equivalent, Chris Whitty, has also become something of a cult figure, with fans printing his trademark phrase "next slide, please" on mugs, shirts, and hoodies.

Most politicians have been keen to stress that they have been “following the science”, deferring to the expert opinion of scientists and subordinating political considerations to medical advice. The implication is that there is one, fixed, thing called science, and that it’s free from politics.

But different countries, even different administrations, have taken vastly different approaches to tackling the pandemic, all while claiming to follow the science. Is there really one single thing called science, and has it ever been apolitical?


Whereas today we tend to associate it with the natural sciences such as chemistry or physics, until the 19th century the word science (from the Latin scientia, knowledge) was generally used to describe any organised approach to gathering knowledge. The study of astronomy, grammar, or music: all could be science. This usage survives in some languages, such as German, where Wissenschaft is used for any form of systematic research from physics to the history of art.

As for those who actually did the systematic study, until the 1830s they were not called scientists, because it was only then that the word was coined. Most often, those conducting research on the physical universe were called natural philosophers, and their area of study natural philosophy.

The oldest scientific chair at the University of Oxford, for instance, is the Sedlian Professor of Natural Philosophy, established in 1621; similarly named chairs were established at Trinity College Dublin in 1724 and Glasgow in 1727. Evan Isaac Newton's landmark Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), a foundational text in modern physics, translates into English as Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy.

What happened in the 19th century to narrow the meaning of science and for its practitioners to become known as scientists? One important step came in 1831 with the formation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. This new organisation was established as a more egalitarian alternative to London's leading scientific body, the Royal Society.

Provincial towns

The British association’s founding members saw the Royal Society as stuffy, elitist, and London-centric. They wanted to bring science out of London’s high society by taking its meetings to provincial towns and cities, and to give some say in the direction that science might take to its practitioners, now often called “men of science”. This was important because of how culturally significant science had become, and, while they might not have dreamed of television talk shows or being immortalised on mugs, they wanted its prestige accorded to the right people.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, better known today for his poetry, had quipped that philosopher was too highfalutin a term for the members of such an egalitarian body, and men of science too cumbersome. William Whewell, a Cambridge don and talented wordsmith, suggested scientist, as an analogy to artist.

Whewell was only being half serious, although he quickly had cause to use the term. In 1834, he reviewed Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, where man of science was obviously not an appropriate term, and where he explained how scientist might render labels obsolete.

Although it was quickly adopted in the United States, scientist took longer to catch on this side of the Atlantic. In 1894, the popular journal Science-Gossip asked leading scientific figures what they thought of the word. TH Huxley summed up the majority opinion, hoping that "you will not allow the pages of Science-Gossip to be defiled by it". Many others thought the term's popularity in America was reason enough to resist its adoption. The physicist Lord Kelvin still stubbornly described himself as a natural philosopher into the 20th century.

Science, in its current usage, is a fairly recent invention. Scientist was coined less then 200 years ago, and widely adopted even more recently. Rather than politics following the science, politics is why we use the words science and scientist today.