How the Great Scientists Reasoned: The Scientific Method in Action,

Gary G.
, 2013. $74.95 (176 pp.). ISBN 978-0-12-398498-2

Gary Tibbetts, in his lively and well-written book How the Great Scientists Reasoned: The Scientific Method in Action, declares that there is something called “the scientific method” (hence the subtitle) and that it can be stated very simply. Moreover, it is best understood not by reading books “on the theory of the scientific method” that Tibbetts finds “dry as dust and less gripping than a telephone directory,” but by studying actual examples of great scientific discoveries, or at least great scientific moments.

Seven cases are considered: Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the “Indies” (yes, that Columbus); the work of Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley on oxygen and the rejection of the phlogiston theory that attempted to explain combustion; Michael Faraday’s contributions to electricity and magnetism; Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x rays; Max Planck on blackbody radiation and the introduction of the quantum; Albert Einstein’s work on Brownian motion and atoms; and Niels Bohr’s contributions to early quantum theory.

Tibbetts describes each of those discoveries or results in such a way that there is something for almost any reader. For a nonscientist craving biographical history, the book contains interesting and entertaining descriptions of the character, training, and motivations of the main players. For those seeking broad generalizations—the kind that philosophers of science love to make—there are indeed a few (very) broad ones. And for the technically minded, Tibbetts throws some mathematical formulas and concepts into the mix—not frighteningly complex ones, but enough of them to remind readers that the author is a working physicist who understands such things.

But can the book as a whole satisfy the needs of a broad range of readers? In examining how scientists reason, various approaches might be taken. Here, for example, are two very different ones:

1. Examine in considerable detail a particular episode in science, with attention to historical factors leading to the result and an analysis of the particular scientific arguments used, but without an attempt to cull from that any general “scientific method” or rules of reasoning.

2. Develop a general set of rules of reasoning to be used in scientific arguments, and then analyze one or more particular scientific episodes in terms of that generalized scientific method.

Historians of science tend to favor 1. Philosophers of science, including some scientists, tend to favor 2. Isaac Newton famously promulgated four general rules for investigating a scientific problem and then explicitly used them in arguing for his law of gravity.

If you want to see what makes particular cases of reasoning scientific, then 1 is quite limiting. What do the cases have in common that makes the reasoning different from that in nonscientific disciplines? But a potential danger of 2 is that the general scientific method produced either does not fit any actual episode well or is left so vague and uninformative that it seems to fit just about any attempt to reason, including nonscientific ones. The latter danger is what scientist and philosopher William Whewell found in Newton’s four rules in the mid-19th century.

So a third approach suggests itself:

3. Declare that there are different scientific methods used by scientists on different occasions, depending on the problem to be solved and the information and techniques available to solve it. Examine a particular scientific episode in the manner of 1 above, but then analyze the reasoning used by means of some general rules that apply to this case and others, but by no means to all.

That, of course, leaves open the question of what, if anything, the methods in 3 have in common. But perhaps there are different legitimate scientific methods, just as there are different types of telescopes for investigating the heavens.

The problem I find in How the Great Scientists Reasoned, an otherwise fun read, is that Tibbetts can’t really decide which approach to take. So, being eclectic, he tries a bit of the first two. Following 1, he dedicates chapters 3–9 to describing individual scientific episodes in some historical detail, without the benefit of any general set of rules or method that applies to all of them. Yet, in accordance with 2, he seems to think there is some general “scientific method.” In chapters 2 and 10, rather than discussing any episodes, Tibbetts formulates a falsificationist version of the hypothetico–deductive method made famous by Karl Popper. But it is altogether too sketchy, and he barely employs it in analyzing particular cases. Since the scientific episodes he picks are quite different from each other, perhaps a useful strategy would have been 3. But, again, he does not propose or use any well-formulated methods of the sort required by 3.

Finally, I can’t resist mentioning two great works on scientific methodology written by working scientists; I am confident Tibbetts would not find those presentations “as dry as dust and less gripping than a telephone directory.” Both adopt strategy 2 above and carry it out with philosophical acumen and panache: The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (reprint, Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1996), written by the aforementioned Whewell in 1840; and The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (reprint, Princeton University Press, 1991), penned by Pierre Duhem at the beginning of the 20th century. I strongly recommend those books to the author and his audience.

Peter Achinstein is a professor of philosophy at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein University Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University in New York City. His most recent book is Evidence and Method: Scientific Strategies of Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell (Oxford University Press, 2013).