Now and then - much more often than I'd like - I come across a claim to the effect that science is merely "a way of describing the world, among other ways." This bold claim is usually made by an academic in literary or cultural studies, but sometimes by somebody from sociology of science or "science studies", sometimes by a person based elsewhere in the humanities and social sciences. The particular formulation that I've quoted above is due to literary academic Peter Brigg, but he is far from being the only offender, or the worst.
Science, we are so often told, is just one way to understand the world - and the same applies to rational thought in general. There are, so the thesis goes, "other ways of knowing", all equally legitimate, even when they are inconsistent with well-corroborated scientific findings or other products of reason. I suppose that this is attractive because it fits in with a kind of post-colonial angst about reason and the Enlightenment.
Too often, such assertions about the nature of science are supported by vague references to Thomas Kuhn's early book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). There is seldom any analysis of Kuhn's arguments in that book, or of those elaborated by Kuhn's many critics. There is usually little sense that the writer knows that the position asserted assumes a highly controversial epistemological theory. It's a theory that many philosophers of science reject, while real working scientists generally seem to have little patience with it.
A more plausible account of science is as follows.
Science is continuous and consistent with other means of rational investigation of ourselves and the larger reality in which we find ourselves. There is no sharp dividing line between science and philosophy, or between science and everyday reasoning. The philosophical investigation of ourselves, and our world, segues into science as and when it becomes possible to make cognitive progress in certain fields of inquiry through the use of what are known as "scientific" means. These include hypothetico-deductive reasoning, controlled experiments, mathematical modeling, and observations with instruments that extend the human senses.
The boundaries of science are blurred, but that is not a terrible problem because science is part - though an increasingly large part - of the general endeavour that we could call "rational inquiry". It does not stand in opposition to, or in competition with, other components of that wider endeavour. If reality is self-consistent and regular, as it appears to be so far, the methods of rational inquiry will produce convergent conclusions. The ideal is an eventual unification of knowledge.
On this understanding of science, its answers to our questions are provisional, but they are far more than interpretations, or optional descriptions, of reality. Well-supported scientific theories provide our best conjectures about many aspects of ourselves and the Universe. At this stage of human understanding, it would simply be irrational to reject such scientific fndings as that certain diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, that the Earth revolves around the Sun (not vice versa), that our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved from earlier life forms, that DNA encodes for proteins in a way that provides a mechanism for biological heredity - and many others. There is no rational alternative to accepting these theoretical claims that emanate from the practice of science.
I am troubled by the propensity of many academics in the humanities and social sciences (but usually not in the field of analytic philosophy) to pass on wild, highly-contestable claims about the nature of science to new generations of undergraduates, as if these claims were uncontroversial. That is not the case at all.
Well-corroborated scientific findings, such as the proposition that we live within a Solar System (our planet and others revolving in orbit around a star), are not merely descriptions, or interpretations, of the world that can co-exist with equally acceptable non-scientific alternatives. Such propositions make substantial assertions about an objectively-existing reality ... and they are almost certainly true. Propositions that are inconsistent with them are almost certainly false.
None of those pesky other ways of knowing can tell us, with the same authority as science, that our beloved Earth is (after all!) at the centre of the Universe, or that it's the centrepoint (after all!) of our local system of a sun, planets, moons, and other astronomical objects. It simply isn't either of those things. Nor was it created ex nihilo in the last six or ten thousand years. Rather, it has an origin in deep time, over four billion years ago.
AIDS is a viral infection, the moon is not a hollow spaceship, and Tyrannosaurus rex did not live by using its long, curved teeth to crack open coconuts.
There's nothing relative about this. There's no genuine competition.