Nonfiction Review: The Knowledge Machine

August 5, 2021 Uncategorized 2 ★★★

Nonfiction Review: The Knowledge MachineTitle: The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science
Author: Michael Strevens
Source: Library
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: Mostly useful for scientists as a great starting point for thinking explicitly about why we do science the way we do.

This book sets out to answer two questions – why does science work? and why did it take people so long to start using the current scientific method? I wasn’t thrilled by this pick from my science nonfiction book club. I love learning new scientific information and this meta approach to the topic didn’t appeal to me. Although I still certainly don’t agree with everything the author had to say, I ended up enjoying the book a lot. As a scientist, I found it a useful prompt to evaluate how I approach my work.

I thought the most interesting question the author asked was about why science works at all. Theoretically, scientists are supposed to objective. Realistically, it’s impossible for people to set aside all subjectivity in their work. He makes explicit that where objectivity is truly required is in professional communication. He makes a great analogy between science and a coral reef. In this analogy, the living, messy surface is the science being done now. The skeleton of the reef is all that objective data we record and leave behind for future generations to build on. Science can then converge on the right answer through this slow accretion of knowledge.

Other parts of the book felt obvious to me, such as the author’s definition of science as an evidence-based pursuit. He tried to set this up as a brilliant new idea, but I think this is how most scientists would define what we do. Although he tries to make this book general enough to capture all fields of science, he’s clearly focused primarily on physics. In particular, he places a real emphasis on the goal of deriving models and equations that are consistent with existing data. He insists that having an explanation or mechanism for why something happens isn’t important. This view doesn’t apply as well to biology. For example, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are the ones who got the Noble Prize for CIRSPR because they’re the ones who showed how it worked. Last but not least, as a scientist, his final section about how scientists these days don’t know anything about the humanities was kind of offensive. I took art, philosophy, and literature classes in under grad and I’m one of many scientists I know with a humanities based hobby.

Despite some limitations, this book was really thought provoking. I think the author correctly identifies enough fundamental aspects of how science works that it could be of interest to a general audience. However, I definitely found it most useful as a prompt to consider how I do science, so I’d primarily recommend it to other scientists.

2 Responses to “Nonfiction Review: The Knowledge Machine”

  1. Rennie

    I like the idea of this but your review makes me think I wouldn’t get much out of it. Really interesting to hear your take on these kind of topics!

    • DoingDewey

      Thanks Rennie! I do think I mostly got something out of this one because it raised questions relevant to my career. It wasn’t so good or so convincing that I want to run out and recommend it everyone.

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