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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.


  1. Nick (Matzke) Nick (Matzke)

    I have a great essay in me on “how we study the evolution of a complex adaptation”…

  2. Bob O'H Bob O'H

    Sounds like a cunning plan. I would write a post about this, but it fails at teh premise that I actually think.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Don’t worry about that. Write what you think you know. Err… you know what I mean. Err…

  3. If I take on another project now, I’ll be in big trouble.

    It’s an interesting question, of course, and I do fairly often talk about relevant points. That is the ‘doing science’ tag at my blog. But also quite possibly at too low a level. I’m not routinely referencing particular researches, philosophers, etc.. Just a matter of my thoughts about parts of how it is we (well, I) go about doing science.

  4. Hi John,

    While I wouldn’t call it science, the questions posed in this post are real, and so is the reasoning, even if I’ve framed it a bit artificially. Thus, I knew everything in the post from the beginning, through I present the reasoning as more or less in process. What happened, is that I viewed the DVD (that I mention in the post) yesterday, and that frame caught my eye. So I searched my photos to find the one that I knew I had that repeated the heart motif. In the process I had the distinct feeling that I’d seen the motif elsewhere as well. The Subway Art book was the most likely candidate, so I got it out, and there was my third image. I also spent a little time on the web looking for other cases of the heart motif, but nothing came up in about an hour of searching. So I stopped & figured it was time to do a little crowd-sourcing. Hence the post.

    PS Take a shower.

  5. Perplexed in Peoria Perplexed in Peoria

    If the target audience is to be undergrads destined neither for a life in science nor philosophy, then is a “Scientists’ Operating Manual” what they really need? Wouldn’t it be better to expose them to a rich collection of anecdotes and case histories by way of anthologies and perhaps also pop science histories like Judson’s “Eighth Day of Creation” or Quammen’s “Song of the Dodo”? Then supply the conceptual structure by way of lectures and lecture notes.

    No one reads operating manuals. People enjoy stories, and they may even tolerate listening to some gorilla explain the moral of the stories. This way may not provide information they can use, but at least it offers the chance of providing information they will remember for a few months past the final exam.

  6. John, I’m writing a series of essays/articles/blog posts on what I call “absent-minded science.” Here’s the first piece:

    My last installment in the series (#5) will be “On Explanations” and will examine what it is about certain arguments that either appeal or don’t when it comes to science and philosophy.

    Interested in using this piece? It will be about 1,500 words.

  7. I have the same problem. I teach a course on scientific controversies (e.g., evolution/creationism) and we need to be on the same page when it comes to defining science. There isn’t anything out there that does an adequate job but I’ve found one paper that’s very helpful.

    It’s by Alan Sokal. I don’t agree with everything he says but he’s on the right track and he at least asks the right questions.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      That might make a good final chapter. I’ll ask Sokal if we can use it.

  8. Dan Hicks Dan Hicks

    I try to teach `how scientists think’ by looking at problems with the proposals philosophers have made. Start with naïve or enumerative induction — what I like to call the `pile of observations’ method. Then read about the problem of induction and point out that a pile of observations doesn’t get you anywhere close to claims about causation and unobservables. Next, try Popper and falsification. Perhaps also some Hempel and Bayesianism. Those look quite appealing (especially to STEM undergrads) until you read some Duhem, Kuhn, and Longino. A little Cartwright makes things look even more chaotic. And then there’s Feyerabend! Muahahah!

    By now the poor STEM undergrads will be either horribly depressed or have switched to a blind faith in the rationality of science. I break off here to talk about science and values and how politics sneak in amidst all the chaos. But one could try to tame the chaos by looking at recent work on, for example, the rather empirical philosophical work on measurement and observation. Or, in a more science policy-oriented course, books by Heather Douglas and Kristen Schrader-Frechette would also be good.

  9. Cromercrox Cromercrox

    Did you know you had a flashing banner ad for the Australian Sex Party? That’s the kind of party to which I never get invited. You sly old dog.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Everyone’s invited. Of course, that may mean it’s the kind of sex party you don’t want to go to.

      It’s the one ad I purposely put there.

  10. Adam Adam

    I’ll try to keep this in mind and address it properly some day, but for now, here’s what I got.

    From my brief experience, there are two motivations to projects

    1) If A & B, then C. A & B are commonly accepted; however, everyone either ignores C, or believes “not C”. Sounds like fun.

    2) The data don’t make sense. Bang head against wall. Try to come up with explanation. Test explanation.

    I suppose a third motivation is to say “nobody has looked at this before, let’s see what’s there”. This builds up the body of knowledge that leads to 1 and 2.

  11. Rebekah Higgitt Rebekah Higgitt

    The International Baccalaureate includes a compulsory module on Theory of Knowledge, which may be in that old tradition of considering science/scienza as all logic/knowledge. It certainly includes introductions to philosophy of science and ideas about scientific methodology. While aimed at school-level, I heard good things about it from people who went on to HPS. It would certainly be useful to have a look at the approaches and materials used, especially as it is tried and tested by 1000s of students over many years.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      The problem here is that I don’t want them to go on to HPS. Well, I do, really, but I mostly want them to understand what scientists actually do, and why. Theory of Knowledge is one level too meta for what I want. Still, I’ll check it out, thanks.

  12. Ben Breuer Ben Breuer

    You may also want to have one contribution/section from a writer in a scholarly field outside the sciences, looking at the scientific method as an outsider, so to speak. Some philosophers may be a good species for that. (Though probably shouldn’t count, being philosopher of science.) It’s difficult, because the scientific method is so commonly used these days.

    (Just from glancing at it—not reading it—Bill Benzon’s piece might go in that direction.)

  13. Rebekah Higgitt Rebekah Higgitt

    It might also be useful to discuss how logic/reason etc are used in other fields. Are they the same or different from use in sciences? It bugs me when scientists assume they’re the only ones who use rational argument.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      That’s a good point. In historiography, as you know, there are those who think that history requires something other than evidentiary reasoning. I am not one of them. So far as I am concerned, history is a science, or aims to be.

    • A good example is the logic of jurisprudence, which differs substantially from formal or mathematical logic but which is definitely rational.

      • Thony, as a lawyer and a biologist I think reason is reason. Period. I see a lot of spurious arguments thrown around in all fields, but the basic rules of logic apply in all fields.

  14. bad Jim bad Jim

    Feynman’s famous talk on “Cargo Cult Science” might be handy, in that it deals with what is and isn’t science, and how scientists go wrong. Sorry if this is obvious.

  15. Kel Kel

    Would love to help, but being a Computer Science graduate I don’t think I could contribute anything useful or accurate.

  16. Great idea. I like to do the same thing, but aim for even a younger audience, though my college engineers could use a dose of what science and scientists do!

    You might like one of the Royal Society of Science’s shortlisted books for this year “The Everyday Practice of Science” by Frederick Grinnell

    I also happened to really enjoy the book Lies, Damned Lies and Science. It is too long for what you want, but it does hit most points to show maybe how one could take a more scientific look at life. It is by Sherry Seethaler. I would totally love to redo that book myself.

    good luck!

  17. You might try David Glass’ book, Experimental Design for Biologists, as it approaches many of the questions you’re asking using real-world examples (conflict of interest statement, I was an editor on this book).

  18. 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.

  19. Chris Winter Chris Winter

    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.

  20. I can see the sequel already: ‘How Scientists Think They Think’.

  21. Adam Adam

    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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