The ScienceBlogs Book Club

Originally posted by Janet Stemwedel
On March 19, 2009, at 4:39 PM

Grinnell.jpgScientists are not usually shy when it comes to voicing their frustration about the public’s understanding of how science works, or about the deficits in that understanding. Some lay this at the feet of an educational system that makes it too easy for students to opt out of science coursework, while others blame the dearth of science coverage in our mass media.

Rather than casting about for a villain, cell biologist Frederick Grinnell has written a book that aims to help the non-scientist understand what scientific practice looks — and feels — like to the scientists. This description of scientific activity connects the dry textbook accounts of scientific method to the vibrant, messy, frustrating yet invigorating terrain scientists inhabit as they try to build new knowledge. Grinnell’s book also connects the scientists’ world to the vibrant, messy, frustrating yet invigorating world they share with non-scientists as he considers ethical and societal dimensions of scientific practice.

Grinnell starts by shining some light inside the black-box of Science that, from the non-scientist’s point of view, perhaps, spits out scientific knowledge. He contrasts the focus in textbook discussions (and journal articles) on the universality of results with the fact that, in real life, actual people (not generalized ones) struggle with scientific questions and produce findings. Grinnell examines the tension between “Professor Anybody” and “Professor Particular” and offers a very nice discussion of how intersubjectivity among particular scientists allows the scientific community to arrive at something like knowledge that can be verified and endorsed by everyone.

Of course, generating new knowledge about the world, and then getting the scientific community to recognize it as knowledge (i.e., to judge your claims to be credible) is not easy. Grinnell describes nonlinearities in the path we might label “discovery,” laying out some of the reasons it can be brutally difficult to build knowledge that takes us beyond the comfort of what is already well known. Some of these reasons seem to have more to do with our perceptual and imaginative capabilities: being able to notice outcomes we do not expect, navigating the ambiguity of results in instances where no one knows the right answer (yet). Others are more practical: these are the problems this lab takes on (so interesting issues that crop up that fall outside of this territory may not be pursued); these are the kinds of techniques we apply to our research (so spending lots of time developing new techniques, or investing lots of money in a new instrument, may be vetoed by the boss). Here, Grinnell makes it clear that, rather than being a mechanistic process, discovery depends on insight, persistence, and luck.

Once the scientist’s conversation with the world has yielded a discovery, the scientist must enter into conversation with his or her community to establish whether the discovery claims are credible. Grinnell describes the different parts of this conversation, whether oral exchanges between scientists at seminars or informal discussions, or formal peer review of manuscripts submitted to scientific journals. As well, he discusses the broader implications of this conversation: whether a finding is deemed credible affects not only whether your manuscript gets published but also whether you can attract grant money and trainees (both important in generating further knowledge submitted to the community for validation). The process of scientific validation is not without problems — Grinnell notes the impact of errors in credibility judgments — but the description of its workings makes sense of its reasonably good track record.

From this picture of the ground-level workings of scientific practice, Grinnell shifts his focus to the interactions between the tribe of science and the larger society. He begins by considering what scientific integrity involves, especially in the context in which society funds a great deal of scientific research and depends on scientists to generate “expert knowledge” that other members of society could not generate. Here, the fact that Professor Particular may have ambitious plans for her career, bills to pay, and offers of lucrative consulting gigs — in other words, that she’s human just like the other members of society — introduces risks and temptations that might pull against the proper operation of the scientific community in generating and evaluating new knowledge. Yet efforts from outside the scientific community (particularly from federal funding agencies) to define and prohibit scientific misconduct run into problems if they don’t fully appreciate the inescapable ambiguities on the frontiers of our knowledge and the honest disagreements and mistakes these can produce.

Next, Grinnell considers the particular ethical issues that arise when human subjects are required to build scientific knowledge. Some ethical challenges are the product, yet again, of ambiguities inherent when new knowledge is built, while others arise because the human subjects being asked to make informed judgments about whether to participate in research understand science as the textbooks describe it, if at all. Grinnell also considers how genetic research may complicate our understanding of the risks of participating and research — and of who besides the actual subjects enrolled in a study might bear these risks.

Finally, Grinnell considers one of the faultlines between scientists and non-scientists in the larger society: the interaction between science and religion. While noting that certain flavors of religion (like biblical literalism) will lead to unavoidable conflicts with science, Grinnell argues for a complementarity between scientific and religious attitudes, in which the two cannot be completely integrated nor completely separated. Grinnell points out that “science, like religion, requires faith”:

My scientific friends dislike this claim a lot. They argue that in science, assumptions are necessary; faith is not. Assumptions can be changed; faith cannot. I suggest that some assumptions are so profound and held with such passion that they appear to me to resemble what we typically call faith. (166)

As you might expect, these assumptions — that the world has intelligible patterns and structures, that there is a uniformity and continuity to the phenomena of the natural world — are completely uncontroversial to scientists. They are needed to ground scientific activity, and they seem not to have let us down so far. Are these really assumptions scientists could change and still continue to practice science?

Part of the complementarity between science and religion, as Grinnell describes it, comes from their focus on different kinds of questions about the world (what kind of stuff our world is made up up, how it came to be this way, what can be done with it versus what it means to share the world with this stuff, what kinds of values or purpose should guide me in my interactions with the world). And while science and religion cannot be completely integrated, Grinnell suggests that religion has a credibility process, too:

Credibility in science begins when peer review authorizes that a discovery claim is worthwhile to examine, but the validity of the claim requires testing by the community over time. At the time the discovery is being made, the idea could be quite different from the prevailing beliefs of the community. At the beginning of the process, the outcome will be uncertain. The credibility process in religion, by contrast, requires peer review to certify at the outset that an individual’s insights are consistent with the religion’s current understanding of itself. (172)

Grinnell is not suggesting that science change its credibility standards, nor does he claim that religion is the only approach to answering non-scientific questions about what we should value or what meaning our lives might have. What he does suggest is that dialogue between people with the scientific attitude and people with religious attitudes might be productive — at least productive of a better understanding of how these attitudes are concerned with the world in different ways. Given that the people with these different attitudes have to share the world, improving that understanding might be useful.

In a spare six chapters (and less than 200 pages excluding endnotes), Grinnell lays out a picture of scientific activity that is clear and engaging. He draws on his own experiences and on anecdotes from other scientists to make the day to day work — and play — of science vivid to the reader. Moreover, he makes impressive use of philosophical materials to set out the dimensions of the knowledge building project to which the everyday labors of scientists are directed — impressive not because it is exhaustive, but because Grinnell has given just the right non-expert gloss to philosophers whose work goes right to the heart of the question of how we can know anything about our world. Some philosophically inclined scientists (whose readings have been self-directed) make very idiosyncratic choices about which philosophers are relevant to which questions. Grinnell’s account of science as seen by philosophers demonstrates that he has been in serious dialogue with actual philosophers of science.

This would be a great book for the lay person who wants a better understanding of where scientific knowledge comes from. It would also be an excellent read for the scientist who wants an introduction to the philosophical underpinnings of (and challenges inherent within) the scientific knowledge-building project. For scientist and non-scientist alike, Grinnell offers some thought-provoking observations on the ways the interests of scientists and non-scientists in our society are tied to each other.