Earlier this summer we talked about what recommended reading we could have for people wanting to keep active over the summer break. There’s a lot of good popular science stuff about specific topic, but is there so much that is applicable to all sciences. I like the Very Short Introductions series of books, and I’d recommend Philosophy of Science A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha.
It’s a book of two parts. The first half tackles epistemology, how we know what we know. If you’ve no idea who Popper, Hempel and Kuhn are then this is essential stuff. The most useful thing is the book doesn’t simply advocate a position. So you get an explanation that Popper thought that for something to be scientific it had to be falsifiable but you also get counter arguments. For instance when Uranus’s orbit had oddities did that falsify Newton’s Law of Gravity? What actually happened is that scientists invented a new planet to explain the perturbations.
The second half is about science and its relationship with society, though there’s not hard and fast divide in the book. Rather Okasha shows how scientific claims lead on to social claims. Is science merely one way of knowing. Is it a form of faith? Is it sexist? As Alan has said on his blog, there’s a lot of pressure for alternative therapies to have the same prestige as science, but not with the same scrutiny thank you. What are the ethical dimensions of what you’re working on?
In one of his books, probably Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman Richard Feynman describes philosophy of science as a disease that afflicts middle aged scientists. If you want to support that view there’s plenty of material. On the other hand it can also be helpful to think about why you’re doing an experiment and if what you think it’s going to test is going to connect to the question you’re asking – particularly if your work is interdisciplinary. This book is relatively painless introduction to that sort of question and, if you can pick it up with two other VSIs as part of a 3for2 offer you can often find, a bargain.