"The Common Sense of Science"
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 5th October 2009This is an intriguing little book with an interesting cover (sadly not shown on Amazon). I picked my copy up in a second hand bookshop in Norwich about ten years ago, but the first publication date is actually 1951 (I have an edition from 1966). I think I was expecting something along the lines of a 1950's pop-science book, with some fundamental scientific principles explained in language for the lay person, but it turned out to be very different: Bronowski's book is about the very nature of scientific enquiry, its philosophy, culture and relationship to society.
Bronowski characterises science as the combination of thought with observed facts, to produce predictive models which can be used to make forecasts about what will happen in the future. Although this seems uncontroversial, he further suggests that the value of the model is as a predictor of what can be observed - as far as it not observed, the "hidden" mechanisms by which the observed facts are explained should not be seen as accurately describing how things "really are". To me this was a bit of an eye-opener, because I'd always implicitly understood that the model is essentially reality. However Bronowski points out that this doesn't need to be the case, noting that Newtonian mechanics is a highly successful predictor for the motions of stars and planets, but doesn't describe the actual mechanism that produces the gravitational forces.
There's lots of other good stuff here - for example, he also tackles the misconception that statistic models are somehow inferior to those that are give more definite answers (they're equally valid), and that the idea of "cause-and-effect" which underpinned Newton's work is the only valid approach to science. He also considers the morality of science - concluding that ultimately science is like any other cultural activity in that it both shapes and is shaped by the society that it takes place in (placing the scientific endevour in this context of history reminded me of Arthur Koestler's wonderful book The Sleepwalkers). In the end, for a book first published nearly sixty years ago it feels wonderfully relevant today.