How scientists think, a book proposal

I’m too busy at the moment to blog, write, think or maintain my personal hygiene, so I thought I’d add content by getting my readers to provide it for me. So I’m going to propose a little project.

First, a bit of background. I often try to explain to students what the process of scientific reasoning is. This is no small problem. While there are a slew of books that give the reader anecdotes, case studies and the interminable philosophy of science summaries, there is nothing that I can find that provides what one might think of as the Scientists’ Operating Manual.

Such books were common at one time, but the last one to do this in any detail is from the 1950s (Morris Cohen and Ernest Nagel’s Introduction to Logic and the Scientific Method, in the tradition that goes back to the 18th century of treating logic and science as basically the same thing). And even that was too detailed. These books are written by academics for academic students, and that is not what I need for my reasoning skills class, which is what I started this for. What I need is a clear but informed short text, of about 80 pages or less, that explains to people who are not going to be scientists or philosophers of science necessarily, how scientists reach their conclusions.

This is crucial, because people treat science as either a black box (data goes in, conclusions come out, and magic happens in between) or as a kind of political and religious ideology. Neither is correct. So it would be useful to have people write something like this. And I am not that guy. I’d like scientists and those who know the material and methodology well to explain how, in short posts, a particular operation is done, from measuring, to sorting, to inferring, to designing an experiment. Nothing more than what scientists do, in such a way that a general reader can read it and say “So that’s why they …” where the ellipses indicate something like “use double blinds and controls” or “classify” or “come up with explanations that way and so on.

This is not to be a text on statistics or analysis, although obviously we’ll need to talk about them too. Nor is it to be about The Scientific Method, because there are many methods and processes. I may write an introduction that covers this when all the contributions are in.

When they are all done and revised in the light of the inevitable comments and corrections from other readers, I’ll bundle them up as a PDF and make it available free for download.

Interested? Get started writing, or contact others, and send the stuff to me. I’ll put it up online. Any format is fine; I can handle pretty well anything.

31 thoughts on “How scientists think, a book proposal

  1. Nomination: this piece by Peter Watts:
    Long Shots and Long Lists
    Published at: 08:01 am – Wednesday January 13 2010

    “Huh. I’ve just been informed by someone codenamed “SciCurious” that my Climategate posting has been chosen as one of the “50 Best Science Blogging Posts of the Year” by an elite cabal of judges running something known as the Open Laboratory! Competition…..
    … these Top-50 are anthologised in dead-tree format for posterity… Just to be clear: we’re talking about that rant in which I claimed that science depends at least partially on the pettiness and vindictiveness of scientists ….”

    The original is here:

    Seriously. Inimitable, clear, recognizable and educational to the “tell me a story” crowd because it first confirms many of their suspicions about people being just like them, then shows how science works _despite_ being done by human beings.

    Don’t miss it.


  2. I grant that this does not come under the hearing of instructions, but I think it’s relevant. Surely an ability to imagine alternative possibilities is a vital tool for every scientist’s problem-solving kit.

    I read this in the Chicago Tribune, back in the day (1988) when, as I recall, it was attributed to a Professor Calendra. It describes a student who, asked on a test to use a barometer to measure the height of a building, gave a correct answer but not the orthodox answer the professor expected.

    Fortunately, I was able to find it in Snopes, collected from several sources including the Reader’s Digest as long ago as 1958.


  3. Of possible interest: How to Think About Science

    “If science is neither cookery, nor angelic virtuosity, then what is it?
    Modern societies have tended to take science for granted as a way of knowing, ordering and controlling the world. Everything was subject to science, but science itself largely escaped scrutiny. This situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Historians, sociologists, philosophers and sometimes scientists themselves have begun to ask fundamental questions about how the institution of science is structured and how it knows what it knows. David Cayley talks to some of the leading lights of this new field of study.”

    Podcasts result.—24-listen/


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