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In the philosophy of science, there are several definitions of protoscience. Its simplest meaning (most closely reflecting its roots of proto- + science) involves the earliest eras of the history of science, when the scientific method was embryonic. Thus, in the late 1600s and early 1700s, Isaac Newton contributed to the dawning sciences of chemistry and physics even though he was also an alchemist who sought chrysopoeia in various ways, some of which were unscientific. Our era views his as one of protoscience. Another meaning extends this idea into the present, involving the distinction between hard and soft sciences, in which various sciences (or branches thereof) are ranked according to methodological rigor. In this sense, the physical sciences may be posited as science whereas psychoanalysis may be labeled as protoscience because not all of its theoretical basis is empirical. Protoscience in this sense is sometimes distinguished from pseudoscience by a genuine willingness to be changed through new evidence, as opposed to having theory that can always find a way to rationalize a predetermined belief. Compare fringe science, which is considered highly speculative or even strongly refuted. Some protosciences go on to become an accepted part of mainstream science.
On protoscience Thomas Kuhn said that they "generate testable conclusions but ... nevertheless resemble philosophy and the arts rather than the established sciences in their developmental patterns. I think, for example, of fields like chemistry and electricity before the mid-eighteenth century, of the study of heredity and phylogeny before the mid-nineteenth, or of many of the social sciences today." While noting that they meet the demarcation criteria of falsifiability from Popper, he questions whether the discussion in protoscience fields "result[s] in clear-cut progress". Kuhn concluded that protoscience, "like the arts and philosophy, lack some element which, in the mature sciences, permits the more obvious forms of progress. It is not, however, anything that a methodological prescription can provide. ... I claim no therapy to assist the transformation of a proto-science to a science, nor do I suppose anything of this sort is to be had".
The term prescientific means at root "relating to an era before science existed". For example, traditional medicine existed for thousands of years before medical science did, and thus many aspects of it can be described as prescientific. In a related but somewhat different sense, protoscientific topics (such as the alchemy of Newton's day) can be called prescientific, in which case the proto- and pre- labels can function more or less synonymously (the latter focusing more sharply on the idea that nothing but science is science).
- Methodical culturalism
- Obsolete scientific theories
- Pathological science
- List of topics characterized as pseudoscience
- History of science
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- Questions to help distinguish a pseudoscience from a protoscience (a new science trying to establish its legitimacy). Adapted from "BCS Debates a Qi Gong Master," Rational Enquirer, Vol 6, No. 4, Apr 94
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