Looking for an engaging, well-written book that explains scientific thinking
August 5, 2008 7:34 PM   Subscribe

Looking for an engaging, well-written book that explains scientific thinking

A bunch of friends of mine are starting a science book club. They are mostly artist/poet/musician/writer types, who want to learn more about science.

As the most scientifically-minded of the bunch (ie: not very), what I really want is for them to learn a bit about how to think scientifically. So while they may be initially drawn to mind-blowing stuff about cosmology or quantum physics, what I really want is for them to get down to earth, and learn some solid basics of critical thinking, and scientific method. I want them to learn how to respond critically to science reporting in the papers, maybe get a little smarter about statistics, get over their innumeracy, maybe be smart about the perils and temptations of drawing inferences too quickly.

Mostly, I guess, I just want them to stop being such artist/poet/musician/writer types all the time.

Can anyone recommend any good book(s)?

Something well-written and interesting, that'll apeal to some pretty literate readers?

posted by ManInSuit to Science & Nature (30 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't read this but it's been getting consistently good reviews and I was very impressed with the author when she gave a talk at my university: Natalie Angier's The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.
posted by peacheater at 7:46 PM on August 5, 2008

I don't know if this is exactly what you've got in mind, but a few authors and their works that come to mind:

Max Weber's essay "Science as a Vocation" (link goes to full text) - This is one of the first times that science is written about from a sociological perspective.

Karl Popper:
- The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Thomas Kuhn:
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Robert K. Merton:
- On the Shoulder of Giants
- The Sociology of Science

Popper, Kuhn, and Merton are some of the better known philosophers of science in the last 100 years.

Much as I hate to propagate the lies of the sexist James Watson, his book "The Double Helix" which chronicles his and Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkin's discovery of the structure of DNA is a good read and gives a lot of insight into the scientific process - ie: sitting around drinking in Cambridge pubs.
posted by i less than three nsima at 8:34 PM on August 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" would fit the bill.

The book describes the scientific method and why it works, examines pseudoscience and why it's wrong, and also leaves one with a sense of profound wonder about the mysteries of the universe that we're beginning to unravel using science. It's written in layman's terms and sounds like it would be great for your group.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:52 PM on August 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seconding Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Paradigms, discovery, and progress (or "progress", in my opinion, but that's one of the lovely things you guys can discuss). It's very big picture, but employs small picture examples. I didn't agree with a lot of what he said, but the writing is beautiful, and his reasoning gave me joy. Ummm. Here is an outline of the book that I found upon searching for it.
posted by ramenopres at 8:53 PM on August 5, 2008

oh. not helpful for statistics, though.
posted by ramenopres at 8:54 PM on August 5, 2008

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande is an interesting foray into medicine and the way physicans think. Perhaps not exactly what you're looking for in your book club, but an interesting and accessible book.
posted by 26.2 at 9:07 PM on August 5, 2008

Not really an answer to your specific question, but I've found the podcast of WNYC's Radio Lab to be informative and fun to listen to (imagine if you crossed Nova with This American Life). Who knows, maybe one of the episodes will serve as a conversation-starter.
posted by jknecht at 9:12 PM on August 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

Just a warning if you decide to read Sagan: he has a very definite opinion and he doesn't want to allow any possibility you might not know it. Don't doubt the truth of his words, but do remember most people in science aren't as dogmatic or annoying about it.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:13 PM on August 5, 2008

For a slightly more roundabout way of learning about scientific method:
A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology

It goes through the history of genetics focussing on the model organisms used for each main discovery rather than the more standard method of focussing on the scientists. I found that while it's aim wasn't to demonstrate scientific process per se, it does a great job of showcasing this anyway just by discussing some really great examples of scientific discovery. It's like a primer of how things should work in research.

There is a more general background given for each organism and about the scientific community at the time. This makes it more interesting to a general reader and helps put each set of discoveries into context. Each organism was worked on by a different type of group or individual so you get a bunch of different viewpoints of what it's like to do research, and each new discovery builds on the one before showing how scientific thought is built up over time.

I think it would be a good book for a more arts oriented crowd (lots of historical detail and personalities to go with the well written science), is definitely engaging and well written. and may be a good way to ease them into more solid science books afterwards.
posted by shelleycat at 9:18 PM on August 5, 2008

As a person who finds herself becoming a cell biologist in early midlife, your question really resonates for me.

Here are three books that I really like:

Your Inner Fish (This book is kind of magical. It's a downright breezy read, but when you finish it, you'll know hellacious amounts of stuff about evolution, developmental biology, etc.)

The Ovary of Eve (This one's thick-n-chewy, and it'll give your reading group a really good workout. My own reading group probably couldn't hack it, but I'm recomending it to you because it's both fascinating and hilarious. The book covers the debate between the preformationists, who believed that life arises from a distinct plan, and proponents of spontaneous generation, who believed that life organizes itself out of chaos. (Guess who was right?) In reading it, you'll learn about the theory that tiny homunculi can be found crowded into the heads of sperm, and any David Lynch fans in your group will appreciate its lengthy, fresh, and nuanced discussion of chicken fetuses. The book's about the history of science rather than science itself, but (as all you humanities types well know) exploring the history of a thing can give valuable insights into the thing's nature. IMO, no significant scientific background is required in order to enjoy this book.

Making PCR (PCR is a way of making scads of copies of a length of DNA (or RNA) very, very quickly. It's one of the processes that have made the current biotech boom possible. The author, Paul Rabinow, is a Foucaultian anthropologist, and this book is his attempt to create an ethnography about the working scientists who developed the technique. I've probably made the book sound a lot more technical than it is-- actually, it's another light, fast one, and you don't need to know much about biotechnology, anthropology, or Foucault to get something out of it. )
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 9:40 PM on August 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Perhaps too obvious is John Allen Paulos' Innumeracy, and its sequel, Beyond Numeracy.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:41 PM on August 5, 2008

It sounds a bit off-kilter, but to understand the scientific thought process I'd also highly recommend reading some solid philosophy. Philosophy writings such as Russell and Hume (among many others of course) provided the groundwork for critical thinking, basic scientific approach, psychology, neuroscience, etc.
posted by thatbrunette at 10:37 PM on August 5, 2008

Seconding the recommendation for Natalie Angier's "The Canon", which is written EXACTLY for your audience. Great stuff.
posted by judith at 10:56 PM on August 5, 2008

While it doesn't explain scientific thinking per se, there is no more engaging or well-written science-ish book than Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by none other than Dick Feynman. It's a fantastic collection of stories about the workings of Feynman's mind as he grew up, and through the various stages of his adulthood. Very highly recommended.
posted by hwyengr at 11:45 PM on August 5, 2008

How to Solve It, by G. Polya is really about Mathematics, but it does teach you critical thinking, logic, and how to go about solving things, and since mathematics underlies so much science, you might as well know as much as possible for the layperson.
posted by xetere at 2:03 AM on August 6, 2008

Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" takes more or less the same strategy that your book group is taking: as an outsider he goes around and talks with lots of scientists. It is an easy read but one that can change your view on the world.
posted by rongorongo at 2:05 AM on August 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Another vote for Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" (from a scientist). Feynman's book ("Surely you're joking..." is also great -- it really is a fun read.
posted by jonesor at 2:29 AM on August 6, 2008

I think any particular book tends to be too slim in scope. I am a writer/artist who hs a strong interest in science. Science magazines is where I get my kicks - your friends will too.

New Scientist is my staple (I don't really read the newspaper, so this weekly mag fills in for all my needs - its news as viewed through science, rather than the other way around).

Seed Magazine is EXACTLY what your friends need. It is a 4/5 times yearly science magazine with an aim to bridge the gap between the sciences and the arts. It is creative, exciting to read and full of topics broached by scientists, authors, artists and just plain geniuses. Their website is also superb and overflowing with articles and videos that will have your friends salivating for more.

Both these mags have a book review section, but Seed Magazine really excels in this department. I have to fend off my desire to buy everything they review. Wonderful.
posted by 0bvious at 2:43 AM on August 6, 2008

Third vote for the Bryson. I loved it.
posted by punkbitch at 2:53 AM on August 6, 2008

i'm surprised no-one has already suggested this - the character of physical law by feynman is the best intro to physics i know. as others have said, feynman was not only brilliant, but has a gift for explaining things clearly.

kuhn's structure of scientific revolutions is very good, but in my opinion it's easy to read into it stuff that simply isn't there. it does a good job at showing people who think they understand how science works that it is in fact a much morer social, complex, and poorly defined/understood process. but if you read it as an initial book you could come away thinking there's no logic to it at all... so i wouldn't start with that. instead, start with feynman (and perhaps something else?) for the basics, then add nuance with kuhn.
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 3:14 AM on August 6, 2008

Against Method will probably appeal to such a crowd, and it's a great book.
The idea that science can, and should, be run according to fixed and universal rules, is both unrealistic and pernicious. It is unrealistic, for it takes too simple a view of the talents of man and of the circumstances which encourage, or cause, their development. And it is pernicious, for the attempt to enforce the rules is bound to increase our professional qualifications at the expense of our humanity. In addition, the idea is detrimental to science, for it neglects the complex physical and historical conditions which influence scientific change. It makes our science less adaptable and more dogmatic: every methodological rule is associated with cosmological assumptions, so that using the rule we take it for granted that the assumptions are correct. Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens. Case studies such as those reported in the preceding chapters show that such tests occur all the time, and that they speak against the universal validity of any rule. All methodologies have their limitations and the only 'rule' that survives is 'anything goes'.
posted by Estragon at 3:56 AM on August 6, 2008

It's an odd recommendation coming from a biologist, but I love The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT, which is the true tale of attending grad school in mechanical engineering at MIT. It's a bit old (one chapter is about the author's first experience with a personal computer) but really gives a feeling for how engineers approach and solve problems.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:25 AM on August 6, 2008

I have a B.Sc. to my name but it wasn't until I took a social science course as required by my degree that I actually learned what the scientific method is all about. The book we read was What Is This Thing Called Science: An Assessment of the Nature and Status of Science and Its Methods by Alan Chalmers and I recommend it for its charm and brevity.
posted by copystar at 6:02 AM on August 6, 2008

Okay, if Kuhn had been the first book I read about scientific thinking, I would've run in the other direction. Unless you're really bent on the philosophy side of it, leave it for much, much later. To get a grounding in the very concepts, and some excitement to keep you going deeper into the rabbithole, I have to second Feynman and Sagan.
posted by whatzit at 6:15 AM on August 6, 2008

Seconding hwyengr's Feynmann suggestion. I'd especially recommend "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out". One of my favorite books, and it sounds perfect for your group. It contains a lot of Feynmann's thoughts about science and scientific thinking and discovery, as well as lectures about what he was working on (geared at laypeople), with healthy doses of humorous anecdotes thrown in.

Also, because it is just a collection of transcriptions of interviews and lectures, you can watch some of it online.
posted by jpdoane at 7:04 AM on August 6, 2008

This book is over 30 years old, but Isaac Asimov's Please Explain is still a great reference.

"No one explains science better than Isaac Asimov. To most he was a science fiction writer, but his greatest contribution to the world was in explaining science to others. In this book, he fields a series of 100 science questions and gives detailed answers, even though each is only two pages in length. Some of the questions are:

*) What are imaginary numbers?
*) How many particles are there in the universe?
*) Why do comets have tails?
*) How will the Earth end?
*) What is meant by curved space?
*) What is the unified field theory?
*) What's a breeder reactor?
*) What is entropy?

As a source for quick and complete answers to many of the common questions about science, this book is unequaled."
posted by kidsleepy at 7:08 AM on August 6, 2008

Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas: Ten examples about sleep, mood, health, and weight by Seth Roberts.

This paper was discussed in the blue a couple of years ago when it first came out. Roberts meticulously tracked his weight, diet, mood and personal habits over the course of ten years, and over that time generated and tested many hypotheses about how to lose weight, become better rested, and improve his overall happiness.

This paper touched off a pretty interesting discussion of "what counts as science"-- and Seth as a person seems to have many of the traits that I think are characteristic of an outstanding scientific temperament-- an irrepressible sense of curiosity, a dedication to collecting large amounts of good data, and a willingness to discard his own theories that do not hold up to factual evidence.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 8:11 AM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Kuhn. (3rd-ed). It's a great place to start. It explains how science "works" in periods of normalcy and in periods of scientific revolution (with a specific, very art-and-society centric definition of scientific revolution... not just some advertising "OMG REVOLUTINARRY!" sense of the term). It's a very fast read too.
posted by zpousman at 1:22 PM on August 6, 2008

"How to Lie with Statistics" by Darrell Huff is a classic. If you pick just one book to combat your friends' innumeracy, this should be the one. Aside from the practical benefits (e.g. not getting rooked), a basic understanding of the limitations of statistics is essential to understanding how and why modern science works the way it does. Huff gives a short, non-threatening introduction to how advertisers, politicians and other crooks exploit these limitations in order to put one over on their intended victims.

"The Man Who Loved Only Numbers" by Paul Hoffman is a very good biography of Paul Erdos, a prolific mathematician and certified oddball. It also provides insight into the culture of modern professional mathematics (turns out they're not all oddballs).

"The Heart of Mathematics: an Invitation to Effective Thinking" by Burger and Starbird is a math textbook written specifically for non-sciencey types. There's naturally a lot of mind-blowing "hotel infinity" stuff to catch people's interest, but its ultimate goal is to teach the reader how mathematicians think. It does have a typical textbook-style format, so you might do better to use it alongside your other books, instead of trying to read it cover to cover like a regular selection.
posted by Commander Rachek at 10:48 PM on August 6, 2008

I just started The Canon yesterday, and am totally loving it after only reading the preface! She obviously finds so much fun and joy in science that it's hard to NOT be carried along with it.

Also, it's been years, but I remember enjoying Unweaving the Rainbow by Dawkins to be quite good. Basically, finding awe and beauty in science, without the need for any sort of mysticism. Of course, Dawkins can be a little harsh for some folks, so YMMV.
posted by epersonae at 9:10 AM on August 8, 2008

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