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In Praise of Science: Curiosity, Understanding, and Progress

Sander Bais
MIT Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Allen Stenger
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This is an extremely rambling book about … well, it’s hard to say exactly what it is about. The focus of the book, to the extent it has one, is on the question: How do we know things in science? The book deals primarily not with scientific discovery but with scientific proof, and so there is quite a lot on experimentation, falsifiability, and repeatability. Maybe it should have been titled “In Praise of the Scientific Method”.

Throughout the book these scientific concepts and methods are contrasted to the methods of legend, tradition, and proof by authority. The book is careful to point out that many areas of human knowledge, although valuable, are not part of science and so cannot be held to science’s rules. Thus it avoids picking fights with religion, philosophy, and morality. Intelligent Design does come in for a lot of criticism, mostly on the grounds that it claims to be scientific but does not follow any of the rules of scientific methodology.

The book has the form of an extended essay, or perhaps a linked series of many anecdotes. It is very frustrating to read through because it is so choppy and wandering; by the end of the book you have seen a lot of interesting things, but you are not sure what it all means. The book is full of interesting stories and would probably be more pleasant if browsed a little bit at a time. Unfortunately the index is woefully inadequate, so if you see something interesting you hardly ever can find where else in the book it is discussed (or even find again the passage you read and liked). But I think the book fails to show the value of science, and fails even more so to meet the promise on the dust jacket of showing “how science can liberate us from our cultural straitjacket of prejudice and intolerance”.

Allen Stenger is a math hobbyist and retired software developer. He is webmaster and newsletter editor for the MAA Southwestern Section and is an editor of the Missouri Journal of Mathematical Sciences. His mathematical interests are number theory and classical analysis. He volunteers in his spare time at, a math help site that fosters inquiry learning.


I. Curiosity beats prejudice
Frames of reference
Coding and decoding
Curiosity and the pleasure of finding things out
According to reliable sources ...
Crossing borders
The persistence of prejudice
Unveiling Mother Earth
Thunder, lightning and black holes
From evolution to HIV
Fighting fear

II. The double helix of science and technology
Basic questions
Supply and demand
Empirical science
The knowledge machine
What science cannot do

III. Turning points
The Ouroboros of science
The scientific enterprise
Outward bound: The macrocosm
Inward bound: The microcosm
Four fundamental forces
The circle of sciences
Three frontiers
Turning points
Cosmic evolution
One nature, one science
Ultimate questions
The quest for the origin
The challenge of complexity

IV. The pursuit of truth
Facts speak for themselves
Discourse on the method
A stringy intermezzo
Leaving Popper behind?
A sociology of science
Science going Google?
Science at the heart of culture

Epilogue: On scientific modesty

Further reading
List of illustrations