How to Think Like a Scientist, Sixty Years Ago

The stupid Steven Pinker business from a few weeks ago turned out to do one good thing after all. It led to this post at Making Science Public, which quoted some books by Jacob Bronowski that sounded relevant to my interests. And, indeed, on checking The Common Sense of Science out of the college library, I opened it up to find him making one of the arguments of my book for me:

Many people persuade themselves that they cannot understand mechanical things, or that they have no head for figures. these convictions make them feel enclused and safe, and of course save them a great deal of trouble. But the reader who has a head for anything at all is pretty sure to have a head for whatever he really wants to put his mind to. His interest, say in mathematics, has usually been killed by routine teaching, exactly as the literary interest of most scientists (and, for that matter, of most non-scientists) has ben killed by the set book and the Shakespeare play. Few people would argue that those whose tast for poetry has not survived the School Certificate are fundamentally insensitive to poetry. Yet they cheerfully write off the large intellectual pleasures of science as if they belonged only to minds of a special cast. Science is not a special sense. It is as wide as the literal meaning of its name: knowledge. The notion of the specialized mind is by comparison as modern as the specialized man, 'the scientist,' a word which is only a hundred years old.

Admittedly, I'm only a bit more than a chapter in, so the whole thing could go completely off the rails, but that's great stuff. From 1951, no less.

Which means that, when the PR people come calling, I now have an old book to point to as some comparable work. And, for that matter, when colleagues ask what it's about, I can drop a name to locate it within an intellectual tradition. Though Bronowski was writing before Kuhn, and thus is probably disreputable for having a generally positive view of science, so maybe I shouldn't bother...

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When I was in college (circa 1970) Bronowski was on the required reading list. His Science and Human Values was the one I remember. I don't know if I could tell you any other book on that list.

Bronowski's best known work is "The Ascent of Man", a BBC/Time-Life documentary series, 1973. And he is the father of the British historian, Lisa Jardine, author of "Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution" also worth reading.