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5.0 out of 5 stars How Science Really Works According to Cell Biologist Fred Grinnell, July 2, 2009
This review is from: Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic (Hardcover)
Forget everything you've learned about scientific methodology, and especially the scientific method, says cell biologist Fred Grinnell in his book "Everyday Practice of Science". Instead he insists, science often operates more successfully by relying on both intuition and passion, and occasionally, even serendipity. The scientific method - especially when viewed through a philosophical lens such as Karl Popper's famous "falsification" criterion - can be viewed more accurately as a guide, not an outright "Bible" - for scientific research. Grinnell contends that, for many scientists, instead of relying upon a strict adherence to the scientific method - which he frequently refers to as the "linear model of idealized research" - there is instead, what he regards as the "ambiguity of every day practice". Much of Grinnell's concise, coherent thought in this rather terse book does revolve around that ambiguity, but it is an ambiguity that may reside only in such "experimental" sciences like cell biology and biochemistry, not within other biological sciences like systematics and ecology. Regardless, Grinnell has written an important book on how science works, and one that should be read widely, both within the scientific community and outside, amongst the scientifically literate public.

Grinnell compares and contrasts the classic model of scientific research with what he refers to as "every day practice". In the classic model, a problem is stated, experiments are carried to confirm or refute hypotheses pertaining to this problem, determine whether experimental results confirm or reject these hypotheses and draw appropriate conclusions, and then seek independent confirmation of these results and conclusions by independent researchers. In "every day practice", or rather, an "ambiguous view" of scientific research, he emphasizes a practical, often pragmatic, view of science, which depends first on how one determines a problem that is worth an ample investment, all too frequently enough, in time and resources, especially those of a financial nature. It's entirely possible that in framing the problem and conducting the experiments, one might ignore, as "experimental error", important data that could lead to an entirely new tangent with respect to scientific research. Moreover, he suggests that good questions should not be discarded immediately if experimental results do not support them at first; since such failures may be due more to errors in experimental design than on whether good questions, good hypotheses, lack any semblance of potential scientific validity. Finally notable discoveries can - and often are - greeted by colleagues with ample suspicion and disbelief, leaving the researcher no choice but to try becoming a successful advocate on behalf of his findings and conclusions.

Does Grinnell make a compelling, quite persuasive, case? He most certainly does within his chosen field of cell biology, demonstrating how "experimental error" and serendipity have led him to unexpectedly new avenues for research. A view of science that is far removed from the classic model known as the "scientific method", and one, I suspect, that is shared by others, including, for example, Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller, who has declared that he does not subscribe at all to this very model of scientific research. It is from this perspective that Grinnell devotes separate chapters to what he refers to as discovery, credibility and integrity. In the chapter entitled "Discovery" (Chapter 2), Grinnell draws upon his early experience as a new researcher who had missed important data by mistakenly attributing it as experimental error, and contends that it is an investigator's thought style (thinking) that is as relevant to scientific discovery as the discovery itself. In "Credibility" (Chapter 3), explains how scientists seek validation of discoveries, not merely through the classic example of scientific peer review, but through publicizing results (via invited lectures at other research institutions and scientific meetings), but also in thinking of their own "thought styles" (preconceptions and "hunches" which may play a more important role in their research than the attempted verification of experimental hypotheses). Unquestionably, "Credibility" is important merely for emphasizing some of the sociological aspects of science I have noted (presenting talks at scientific society meetings, etc.) and comparing and contrasting scientific peer review with its closest analogue, judicial review in the courts (though, admittedly, that isn't a precise analogy between the two).

Sociological aspects of science truly come to the fore in the latter half of "Everyday Practice of Science". Grinnell's chapters on "Integrity" (Chapter 4) and "Informed Consent and Risk" (Chapter 5) addresses, in the words, of a pre-publication reviewer of this book, the "humanity of science". In "Integrity", Grinnell emphasizes the importance of trust in relying on fair, relatively unbiased, peer review in the important task of peer reviewing grant proposals as well as potentially publishable science in scientific journals. He also stresses recognizing potential conflicts of interest, which certain have become ever so important in the recent rapid development of start-up biotechnology firms relying on discoveries made at university and college research centers, often made by the very founders of these firms. The next chapter, "Informed Consent and Risk" delves into the ethics of human research, with special emphasis on gene therapy research. If nothing else, this chapter comprises both a useful and sobering reminder of the perils of human subject research, as well as important insightful analysis from Grinnell explaining why, especially with respect to gene therapy, this research hasn't progressed substantially within the past decade.

Most scientists will insist that Faith (Chapter 6) should never be considered in the every day practice of science. This is clearly one point that a devoutly religious scientist like cell biologist Ken Miller and dedicated atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss will find themselves in agreement. Surprisingly, however, Grinnell observes that, in essence, both religion and science are different sides of the same coin. He believes scientists rely as much on faith in science, as they might in their personal lives, with respect to any deeply held religious beliefs (or perhaps even well-considered skepticism and militant atheism). Succinctly, but with utmost clarity, Grinnell points to Intelligent Design creationism as an excellent example as to how scientists can and should distinguish faith in science from faith in religion. He also stresses how religion and science can be compatible, drawing from physicist Niels Bohr's notion of complementarity, who argued that modern physics created the necessary conditions for recognizing that religion and science constitute opposite sides of the same coin; as separate, but complementary, avenues for asserting faith. Grinnell believes Bohr's point is of utmost importance, in stressing the limitations of both, and perhaps too, to remind scientists that they should embrace humility when thinking of their scientific research, and its implications for others, including the general public. The limitations of scientific research is an important note upon which Grinnell concludes his discussion, but it is an observation that will be ignored by many, especially by so-called "New Atheists" (I prefer the term "Militant Atheists" as a more suitable description of their zealous behavior.) who think religion deserves to be discarded as superstitious nonsense, replaced only by a philosophical worldview which stresses the overriding importance of science.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 17, 2009 9:44:56 AM PDT
WHM says:
Sounds like a disjointed book that jumps all over the place. Did the author make any major contribution to cell biology?
To learn "how science really works", I would recommend The Art and Politics of Science by Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 20, 2009 10:54:35 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 22, 2009 5:49:31 PM PDT
The easiest way to assess whether someone has made any major contributions to cell biology (or many other research fields) is with the ISI data base called Web of Knowledge. You can use that data base to learn the number of publications by a researcher and whether the published work has been cited by others. If you do not have access to the Web of Knowledge data base, then you can get similar information -- albeit not quite as complete -- from Google Scholar: http://scholar.google.com/schhp?hl=en&tab=ws

Learn more about citations and their meaning in Chapter 3 of my book. The first half of my book will you understand practice of science. The second half discusses current controversial issues in science in light of that understanding.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 19, 2009 5:11:28 PM PDT
FLeader says:
I read the book and thought it was excellent. It did not jump all over the place, but was very cogent. To think that the best science is always done by famous and award-winning scientists indicates a lack of appreciation for how fame in science is acquired and the role of luck in winning awards.

Posted on Jun 16, 2010 8:17:17 PM PDT
"I prefer the term "Militant Atheists" as a more suitable description of their zealous behavior." - John Kwok

Compare this to "Militant Christians" and "Militant Muslims" and you can see how absurd this statement is. The "zealous behavior" of so-called "Militant Atheists" consists of fact based criticisms of religion, whereas the zealous behavior of Militant Christians and Muslims consists of threats of violence and actual violent acts including murder. Consider Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions or bomb abortion clinics and the acts of Muslim terrorists. These are genuine militant actions. Mere criticism does not qualify as militant.

Militant Atheist is an inaccurate and intentionally inflammatory term to use against those who point out the absurdities of religion and the harm it has done and continues to do. Either that or it's just an ignorant regurgitation of what has become a popular put-down believers use against outspoken non-believers. And religion does deserve to be discarded as superstitious nonsense - it is nothing more.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 17, 2012 5:11:53 AM PST
ADHD Mom says:
"...absurdities of religion....Religion does deserve to be discarded as superstitious nonsense-it is nothing more." Now who's being intentionally inflammatory? Not to mention selecting one sentence out of a very long review to go completely off-topic in your comments. That said, your distinction of militant Christians and Muslims from some Atheists (shall we call them "hard core?") is a valid one. However, generalizing ALL their criticisms as fact based exaggerates the matter. Some Atheists are as "zealous" in their "non-faith" as some believers are in their faith. Oh dear, look who's gone further off track. However, one person's inaccuracies deserve to be challenged just as much as another's. Shall we call this tangent done and return to the book before these comments disintegrate into something unpleasant and of no use to anyone?
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