Non-Fiction Reviews


It Started With Copernicus: Vital Questions About Science

(2014) Keith Parsons, Prometheus, 18.99 / Can$21.00 / US$19.95, pbk, 350pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14929-1

 

Obtain a university science degree and you may well think that you are set up for (well, at least on the road to) a career in science. Actually, while this is sort of true there are a number of fundamental odds and ends that most university degree courses simply do not cover: ethics is one, science publication another, research assessment yet another. Yet such aspects of science are important and anyone going into a career in science (even if not university research) will almost certainly at some stage or other (if not more frequently) have their work assessed, or get published in some scientific periodical or other, or come up against an ethical question directly relating to their work. One such area course far more often than not that fails to get included in courses is the philosophy of science. Here be thankful that Keith Parsons has given us a whistle-stop introduction to the topic.

Now the reason the philosophy of science is important is that while many graduates are expected to pick-up science methodologies as they go along, how science is done at its most fundamental level is actually intrinsic to the business of being a scientist let alone the business of doing science. Maybe I have been lucky. My own science career (in science communication publishing and policy analysis) has given me more of a panoramic view of the science landscape than the vast majority of graduates get to experience in their lifetime: most scientists get on honing their craft within a highly specialised specialism and they seldom on a professional basis form meaningful work-related partnerships with scientists from a completely different specialist area. (Indeed, in the life sciences such are the divides that we have long known that whole-organism biologists almost speak a different language to that of molecular biologists!)

At this point I could witter on and give numerous examples from eminent professorial-level researchers not knowing the definition of the scientific method, through to a group from a science discipline failing to incorporate their cousins in a closely allied sub-discipline in addressing an issue of fundamental concern to both. But I wont as I must introduce you to Keith Parson's It Started With Copernicus: Vital Questions About Science.

Parson's himself is a university-based philosopher: yes I know, the humanities. And while those in the woolly-thinking humanities (there were many reasons for the Pilgrimage of Grace in King Henry VIII's time) compared to the precise hard sciences (pure water boils at a one single precise temperature under a certain pressure), may seem to have little to offer scientists, actually in their own way their humanity disciplines have their worth and doubly so to scientists who might benefit from the outside-in view.

Science, as a body of professionals doing their thing, did not spring up from a vacuum: there was no probability quantum foam underpinning its cultural development. Science has a history and science methodologies evolved starting way back with Aristotle and the ancient Greeks looking up at the stars (as Sheldon Cooper so eloquently pointed out to Penny). There are also a number of ways to consider science: such as it is all about the ability of falsification as Karl Popper elucidated (you can try to falsify the notion that gravity causes objects to fall by experimenting, letting go to see if they will fly up, but you cannot attempt to falsify that there is an all-powerful God because that hypothetical God would, if existing, have the power to undermine your experiment). Even with the very first component of the scientific method, formulating a hypotheses, one can use inductive reasoning, or hypothetico-deduction, purely deductive reasoning etc. Yet most scientists I know, and indeed I have worked with, simply are unaware of these classifications of approach let alone the arguments for and against each, let alone to which their own thought processes lean. Keith Parson's It Started With Copernicus gives us a summary explanation. Now, yes, most scientists get away without knowing all this and, by and large, successfully wing it through their professional life. But it does tend to show at your average science symposium audience question-and-answer time: if someone in the audience has a new thought or an idea relating to the subject at hand it can easily be dismissed as being radical or off-message, and so forth and not as a rational idea springing forth from inductive reasoning or whatever. Indeed we scientists tend to forget that we are human beings subject to both human psychology (as Spock pointed out) and to the human social frameworks within which they function: to take an extreme example, remember Lysenko?

I am sure that Parsons wrote this book for humanity undergraduates, albeit with the hope that some others would pick up on it out of interest along the way. But I do recommend it to scientists be they students or even those further along with their career (it is never too late). This book deserves to be read by scientists and then once read thought about and then a couple of weeks later re-read. And this advice especially at those times when you are considering hypotheses for your next tranche of experiments, horizon scanning, or a number of activities you are likely to undertake requiring analytical thought. In short, if you are a scientist then you may well want to check this book out (and if not this book, then something like it, if you can find one).

Jonathan Cowie


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