What does empirical mean?

Reading time: About 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: empirical.

Of course I know the meaning of the word empirical. One of the foundations of science, empirical evidence refers to knowledge that is acquired through observation or experimentation.

For example, think of the baking soda + vinegar experiment you may have done as a child (or, indeed, done with your own children.) When you mix together baking soda and vinegar you can produce the “lava” for a homemade volcano.

The vinegar is an acid (acetic acid or ethanoic acid), and the baking soda is a base (sodium bicarbonate). When mixed, a new chemical called carbonic acid is made. And this carbonic acid immediately decomposes into carbon dioxide gas. It’s the carbon dioxide gas that makes the bubbles, thus giving you empiric proof as to the chemical change. 

I was thinking about this word recently, after re-reading yesterday’s blog post on the work of neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen. Here is a sentence in which she used the word, in her article on the secrets of the creative brain.

A more empirical approach can be found in the early-20th-century work of Lewis M. Terman, a Stanford psychologist whose multivolume Genetic Studies of Genius is one of the most legendary studies in American psychology.

The term, which dates back to 1600, comes from the Latin word empiricus meaning, “a physician guided by experience.” And this, in turn, comes from the Greek wordempeiría, also meaning experience. Originally, this referred to a school of ancient physicians who based their practice on experience rather than theory.

Interestingly, the opposite of an empirical view, is a rationalist one under which reason alone is considered to be evidence enough for truth.