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The Trouble with Science

3 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674910195
ISBN-10: 0674910192
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Editorial Reviews


Powerfully polemic, Robin Dunbar argues that biological evolution has not equipped us to think scientifically. The blind watchmaker of evolution has 'designed' us to be social animals, so that we are good at assessing whether other people are telling us the truth or not (because truth-telling is the foundation of social life). (Tom Wilkie The Independent)

Brilliant...[This] is actually a paean of praise for, and robust defense of, science and scientific method. Dunbar benefits greatly from his training as an anthropologist. He knows what scientists do, say, and feel in their labs, at their conferences, on their expeditions, and in their relaxed moments, as well as what they and their (often misguided) supporters say when they feel obliged to put on a public performance for the laity. (John Ashworth Times Higher Education Supplement)

The general reader will benefit greatly from Dunbar's book because he explains, with vivid examples and historical excursions, what science is, what it does, what it cannot be, and why most of us find science--or even thinking logically--relatively difficult. (Michael Thompson-Noel Financial Times)

A terrific book...Dunbar has fun with the argument that science is a cultural construction and therefore subject to fashion...Science is not a great way to get lots of money, or these days, even a job. But there are great riches in it, and in this book, too. (Tim Bradford New Scientist)

Dunbar's unassuming little book provides a contrast, and an antidote to the excesses of social constructivism, mainly through his informed, insightful celebration of science. He explicitly addresses the Trouble with Science arising from the skepticism and hostility borne largely of ignorance and post-modernist philosophies of despair. His book may be seen as a volley fired in the 'science wars' that have been raging recently. (Peter Slezak Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences)

About the Author

Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674910192
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674910195
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,770,345 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Daniel J. Rose on July 10, 2003
Format: Paperback
Current reviews of this book complain either that Dunbar's effort is too light, with a few interesting surprises, or that it is too focussed on elevating the perceived defects of science (reductionism) to unlikely levels of excitement and interest, and failing to observe that there is simply more to life than science. The first criticism neglects that this is, indeed, a focussed treatment, intended to show, without apology, exactly what we miss by not giving science sufficient importance in our lives, and in fact that it could be the difference between life and death itself. The second criticism completely misses Dunbar's central point that science is, in fact, one of the most basic activities of life, not to say of human life.
Whether it is instrumental or essential in itself, the reality is that science, in one form or another, remains the bulwark that saves us from superstition, which in the end could just save us from extinction. That it also, in its purest reality, engages us in a truly wonderous process of discovery should not be obscured by its analytic and reductive requirements, and that is also one of Dunbar's magnificently subtle and essential points.
Without belaboring what has become truely unsuccessful and often misleading popularization, such as trying to show how science somehow ultimately "proves" the reality of spirit, Dunbar manages to convey the very exciting, but just audible message, that the process of discovery in which science engages us is as much self-discovery as it is discovery of the world in which we live.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on April 10, 2003
Format: Paperback
In the early and mid -90's, it seems that there was a push to popularize science. Authors came out in droves to write books the public could understand on what seemed beyond the publics understanding. Dunbar actually remembers, in one section, that it was not too long ago that any bookstore had a FICTION section (maybe even subdivided by type) and a NONFICTION section in which everything from physics to music history was shelved together. Those days are no more.
This book's goal is not only to tell the laypublic that science is exciting, worthy of attention, and not in the least the strawman that cultural relativists have set up for them. The problem (the big one, that is) is that he never really makes the point. For the first 2/3rds of the book (in my view, the most interesting bit), Dunbar gets no-where near that topic - talking instead about how humans from all cultures, and animals from many species have used a scientific outlook to solve problems. As the animal section is likely the most counter-intuitive, that is the best section here.
For a while, too, we also talk about (in a good, but really irrelevant chapter) about how chimpanzees have developed, to a smaller degree than us, the same kind of social thinking that we have. They run in hierarchies of rank, they engage in deceptive psychological trickery (obviously requiring a sense of relating to others) and develop complex social relations. Dunbars point here is that maybe evolution gave us much more ability to understand social relations better than the natural sciences. If so, that would very well explain the overwhelming popularity of the "human sciences" like sociology, psychology and law, but all in all, this is a very loose connection made by Dunbar. He never actually ties it in.
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2 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Sam Nico on November 11, 2001
Format: Paperback
In an age dependent on scientific progress and scientific methodology, Robin Dunbar points out the woeful level of understanding of science, and particularly the lengths
that universities must go to in order to attract students onto scientific courses. The ultimate cost of this will be a poorer grade of scientist, and a decline in standards in scientific education in general by osmosis. This book is intended to be a part remedy to this problem, by encouraging a greater interest in the subject.
As a potted history of the development of science and its underlying philosophy (for the book is less than 200 pages long), it is very readable. However, in trying to engender interest in the modern reader, it shoots itself in the foot on two or three occasions.
Science did not begin with Newton, and has always been used, even in `pre-scientific' times, both by humans as well as animals. On one occasion, he points out the tremendous feat of memory exhibited by a native who, having crossed a desert in his
childhood, was able to remember the way in adulthood from various markings en route, and was able to lead an expedition on a 1000 mile journey in more or less a straight line. Such knowledge and the ability to absorb it, we are told, was essential to his survival, while we commit such information to computers and rely on technology to show the way. That is surely the point, which prevented one ancient King from accepting the written word from Thoth, on the grounds that it would make his soldiers lazy. We are the inheritors of the latter, and our survival does not depend on knowledge we carry within us, but on socio-economic factors. Most people may know nothing about quantum theory, yet have an incredibly detailed knowledge of ISAs, PEPs, the meaning of capital growth and so on.
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