Review of “The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science,” by Michael Strevens

The author is on the faculty of the Philosophy Department at New York University and has been writing about a range of issues relevant to the scientific enterprise for more than twenty years. Some of his essays and papers sound quite technical, but this is a book written for entertainment as much as the serious ideas it presents.

First things first; the grammar was a little clumsy at times and I had to reread several paragraphs. This is a typical complaint I have with science writers; I think our thoughts jump before the pen has caught up. I noted (for the umpteenth time) that the number of (blatant) grammatical errors increased towards the end, as if he just wanted to get it finished. Still, it was well written overall.

I enjoyed the general approach used; setting out to debunk two of the more famous ideas about science is a great attention getter. He did a good job of it too. However, I’m not sure if the basic tenet (I’m not giving it away) justifies a book of this length. Some of the examples used to present his ideas weren’t very convincing although I agree with his conclusions (in general). Of course, I am a scientist, so maybe…actually, I would go further than he does in criticizing the practice of science .

The author goes out of his way not to offend anyone; all of the examples he uses are from the physical sciences, e.g., physics and chemistry, but social sciences like sociology and economics aren’t discussed. However, by neglecting disciplines that don’t have the clarity of conceptually simple measurements, his discussion can be interpreted as either chauvinistic or overly simplistic. The closest thing to a discussion of social sciences is taking aim at two famous philosophers of science, as the thesis of the book. This omission makes the author’s premise less convincing, possibly even reducing it to no more than biased speculation after an evening searching the internet for anecdotal stories.

I read this book on a Kindle, so I couldn’t easily go back and search for something forgotten. Thus, despite the repetition of several stories and ideas, I don’t recall exactly what “The Iron Rule” is.

That may be because I’m stupid, but still, shouldn’t even the densest reader get the main point to a book-length discussion of what is basically a simple idea?

Despite my criticism, I recommend this as light reading, especially for non-scientists who may mistakenly think that SCIENCE knows what it’s doing. I think the author paints a pretty accurate picture of how scientific inquiry proceeds, despite his bias.

As the author concludes, science is an unthinking golem, despite being practiced by the most intelligent animal on earth…

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