Non-Fiction Reviews

Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science

(2004) John Cornwell (ed), Oxford University Press, 18.99 US$29.9557, ISBN 0-198-60778-4.

Thirteen scientists and/or philosophers investigate the nature of scientific expanation. They originally did this as part of a symposium held in 2000 and this book, if you will, represents the proceedings.

The subject of explaining science is vitally important, as many of this site's visitors know only too well being scientists with an interest in SF. I am personally acutely aware of this having spent the best part of a decade explaining to politicians the science underpinning a number of controversial issues (such as: Brent Spar sea disposal, xenotransplantation, foot and mouth, antibiotic resistance, GM crops, and, of course one of my own special interests climate change and related energy issues). I have also communicated science to the public from bars in London to secondary schools in the Tarnsylvanian Alps to Hungarian towns folk down the road from a US bombed Serb village and to Canadian office workers on a raised beach. Heck: while travelling I have even been asked to give an airline crew a briefing on SARS and was rewarded with a couple of duty frees. So I am not entirely a stranger to the real-life practice of this book's subject.

Cornwell's excellent introduction firmly sets the scene very much in this vein of use of scientific understanding in society: he cites a particular court case concerning a drug's side effects. However, despite this sober start, the text thereafter takes of to dizzying heights. Peter Lipton looks at the nature of understanding and concludes (not I feel satisfactorily) that it is all down to causal explanation. Steven Weinberg asks whether science can explain everything and concludes that it (currently) cannot as we do not have a joined up theory of everything. Though along the way he interestingly notes that explanation is distinct from discovery and, for example, notes that Kepler's Laws of planetary motion were part of the basis for Newton's theory of gravitation but today students look at gravitation to determine Kepler's laws! The astronomer Martin Rees explains (among other things) science hierarchy; for which I am grateful that a physical scientist can explain how physics relates to biology, as all too frequently I have come across bigoted physicists who claim that their science explains 'everything'! (Which of course is as true as saying the natural sciences of observing nature at all scales leads to an understanding of everything, or philosophy - from which scientific methodology springs - or mathematics - without which physics would struggle - or that political science explains everything. Though politicians do keep trying to persuade us that it, or their version of it, can.) Fortunately I have also met many sane physicists. This little rant of mine leads me on to William Saslaw who expands on this theme. He concludes that it is often counterproductive to try to apply physical explanations ritualistically or with insufficient insight. How true. John Barrow looks at mathematical explanations and gives us a couple of very elementary, but illustrative, mathematical conundrums. Peter Aitkins tackles chemistry and ends up pointing out that it lies on the boundary between simplicity and complexity. Steven Rose provides a biological perspective pointing out that environments affect organisms but also that organisms affect/determine the environment: a lesson we would do well to heed in the 21st century. David Hanke, a biologist, makes a well worn point about teleology. For example, he criticises Dawkins' statement: 'Chloroplasts have been evolutionary successful'. Well we all know that chloroplasts don't start the day thinking, 'now how am I going to win the evolutionary game today,' and we all know what Dawkins meant, so Hanke's point is one of pure pedantry even if it is one of which we need to be aware; but didn't we learn this lesson doing school biology, and does it matter for the public providing they get the message? (Maybe it does David, but we are not in the position where the message always gets across where it counts: refinements can come later.) Indeed in terms of 'explanation' he might have better served us with addressing the use and abuse of the teleological mode or alternatively gone off for a study session on the role of communication in explanation, but ds h knw wht cmmnctn s? Colin McGinn offers an impenetrable discussion entitled 'what it is not like to be a brain' a negative whose conclusion is that explanation necessitates us, "finding what the primary entities are in the domain under investigation." Pretentious, soi? Jack Goody competes with McGinn and takes a social anthropological approach astounding us with the conclusion that explanations need to be relevant to 'other spheres' and that we need to go for a 'plurality' (he means 'many') explanations. (You don't say...) Finally Jon Turney brings us down to Earth with the observation that as we gain new understandings whether we (specialists) can truly explain them to others (non-specialists) without at least in part making them specialists too. An interesting point but I wish he had got to it on page two and moved on from there.

Corwell's interesting introduction, based firmly on real-world problems of the need to explain science to the rest of society, is augmented by a number of interesting contributions. However for many this book will be far too theoretical and even for theorists (unless they revel in convoluted language so as to see it unravel and ending up with a minor obvious point) much is specious. This is a shame as this book contains a few gems and its mission is most worthy. Ironically it was the scientists who in the main delivered the goods and not the philosophers and social scientists who you would have thought would be better grounded in addressing ideas. All of which leaves me to wonder should I hope as to whether this was representative of their respective camps? This is the sort of book I would borrow from the library although I am not at all clear whom OUP expect it to benefit. (Oops, I'm being teleological.) Indeed I cannot in all good conscience, if I am to sleep tonight, recommend that you buy it.

Jonathan Cowie

Interested in science communication? Check out our recent review of Uncertain Science... Uncertain World.

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