Thursday, April 23, 2009

Read This Book: Laboratory Life

The attempt to demystify science isn't new. In the seventies, the young French philosopher (this is already sounding awesome, right?) Bruno Latour spent two years in a neuroendocrinology lab at the Salk Institute. The book that he wrote on his experience, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, details his observations of the scientists as if he were an anthropologist studying a mysterious foreign "tribe." Through spending time with the tribespeople and learning to think and speak like them, he was able to uncover how scientists collect, learn about, talk about, and present scientific data.

I can't tell you why you should read this book any better than Jonas Salk himself did in the book's introduction so I'm just going to copy some of the good parts of that from here.

"Scientists often have an aversion to what nonscientists say about science. Scientific criticism by nonscientists is not practiced in the same way as literary criticism by those who are not novelists or poets...

A love-hate relationship exists toward scientists in some segments of society. This is evident in accounts that deal with facets ranging from tremendously high expectations of scientific studies to their cost and their dangers--all of which ignore the content and process of scientific work itself...However, the present book is somewhat different from accounts usually written by nonscientists about science...[Latour] has tried to to observe scientists with the same cold and unblinking eye with which cells, or hormones, or chemical reactions are studied...

I am now convinced that this kind of direct examination of scientists at work should be extended and should be encouraged by scientists themselves in our own best interest, and in the best interest of society...If the public could be helped to understand how scientific knowledge is generated and could understand that it is comprehensible and no more extraordinary than any other field of endeavor, they would not expect more of scientists than they are capable of delivering, nor would they fear scientists as much as they do. This would clarify not only the social position of scientists in society, but also the public understanding of the substance of science, of scientific pursuits and of the creation of scientific knowledge. It is sometimes discouraging that although we dedicate our lives to the extension of knowledge, to shedding light and exemplifying rationality in the world, the work of individual scientists, or the work of scientists in general, is often understood only in a sort of magical or mystical way.

Even if we do not agree with the details of this book, or if we find it slightly uncomfortable or even painful in places, the present work seems to me to be a step in the right direction toward dissipating the mystery that is believed to surround our activity."

Seriously, read this book.

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