Science's Stubborn Majesty

Science's Stubborn Majesty
AP Photo/Agapito Sanchez, Baylor College of Medicine

Among the missed opportunities in my life, the elaborate physics kit my parents gave me for my 10th birthday reigns supreme. Intimidated by the sheer number of parts, I never performed any of the experiments, but I remember being mightily pleased with the manual that came with it, a spiral-bound paean to the rigors of scientific tinkering.

Memories of that pleasure came flooding back to me as I was reading Michael Strevens’s riveting book “The Knowledge Machine.” A philosopher of science at New York University, Mr. Strevens doesn’t hide his light under a bushel. “In this book,” he tells us, “you will discover how science really works.” Forget those flashes of serendipitous insight that you were told precede scientific discovery, the magical dream in which the periodic table appeared to Dmitri Mendeleev, or the mysterious fluorescent glow Wilhelm Röntgen beheld in his cathode tube that led to the development of the X-ray. Post-Newtonian science, for Mr. Strevens, is all about measurements and their gradual experimental refinement; it is, as he informs us with grim delight, inhuman, repetitive and sterile, an insensible machine bent solely on the production of facts about the observable world. What keeps it running is the “iron rule of explanation,” a firm set of standards by which all scientists are expected to abide. Those standards decide what counts as evidence and what doesn’t: They sift the wheat of truth from the chaff of falsehoods and control who comes out on top (and, if very lucky, bags a Nobel Prize). The knowledge machine doesn’t need dreams or magic to function. And, as Mr. Strevens admits, it doesn’t need a philosopher of science either.

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