The best books about how science actually works… or doesn’t

Richard Farr Author Of You Are Here: A User's Guide to the Universe
By Richard Farr

Who am I?

I was once an academic philosopher, but I found it too glamorous and well-paid so I became a novelist and private intellectual mentor instead. I wrote You Are Here because I love what science knows, but an interest in how science knows drew me into the philosophy of science, where a puzzle lurks. Scientists claim that the essence of their craft is captured in a 17th Century formula, “the scientific method”... and in a 20th Century litmus test, “falsifiability.” Philosophers claim that these two ideas are (a) both nonsense and (b) in any case mutually contradictory. So what’s going on? 

I wrote...

You Are Here: A User's Guide to the Universe

By Richard Farr,

Book cover of You Are Here: A User's Guide to the Universe

What is my book about?

Consider: an ant the size of a blue whale would have viruses the size of ants.

A universe is a terrible thing to waste. I wrote You Are Here because it drives me up the wall when people say lazily that galaxies or planets or protons are “just too big/small/complicated/weird” to imagine. Shouldn’t we try? This very short tourist guide to everything will help you get an imaginative grip on what’s out there by tracking away from the human or one-meter scale in both directions at once: upwards, to geography and astronomy and cosmology, and at the same time downwards or inwards to the ant, the atom, and the quantum.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Understanding Philosophy of Science

Why did I love this book?

There are many short, accessible introductions to what current philosophers of science spend their time arguing about; this is one of the best. It wisely doesn’t cover everything, but instead uses Francis Bacon’s crucial break with the authority of Aristotle as a point of entry into current debates on half a dozen core issues such as inductive inference, progress, and realism.

By James Ladyman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Understanding Philosophy of Science as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Few can imagine a world without telephones or televisions; many depend on computers and the Internet as part of daily life. Without scientific theory, these developments would not have been possible.

In this exceptionally clear and engaging introduction to philosophy of science, James Ladyman explores the philosophical questions that arise when we reflect on the nature of the scientific method and the knowledge it produces. He discusses whether fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge and reality might be answered by science, and considers in detail the debate between realists and antirealists about the extent of scientific knowledge. Along the way, central…

Book cover of The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey

Why did I love this book?

Where and why did the modern idea of “the scientific method” show up? The somewhat disturbing answer is that it emerged from highly rhetorical attempts—mainly in one U.S. pop sci magazine in the early twentieth century—to distance wonderful “science” (in its modern sense, which was invented in the 1870s) from anything merely humanistic. The details of this hidden history leave you with the vertiginous sense that the very words we use in this areascience, rational, evidence, know—constitute a kind of fog of evidence-free non-rational assumptions.

By Henry M. Cowles,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Scientific Method as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The surprising history of the scientific method-from an evolutionary account of thinking to a simple set of steps-and the rise of psychology in the nineteenth century.

The idea of a single scientific method, shared across specialties and teachable to ten-year-olds, is just over a hundred years old. For centuries prior, science had meant a kind of knowledge, made from facts gathered through direct observation or deduced from first principles. But during the nineteenth century, science came to mean something else: a way of thinking.

The Scientific Method tells the story of how this approach took hold in laboratories, the field,…

Book cover of Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science

Why did I love this book?

This is, first, a jeremiad against the cheerful scientific ignorance on display in so much postmodernist philosophy. I admit to having enjoyed the critique—it’s razor sharp and often funny. But you don’t have to be interested in postmodernism to enjoy what emerges from this: a wonderfully clear, readable, undogmatic discussion of what characterizes good (and bad) scientific practice in a wide variety of disciplines. The authors usefully compare science to a criminal investigation. Science, they say, is simply “a rational response to investigation under complex uncertainty”—but detective work is an art, and (a jab at Karl Popper here) “no one has written a definitive treatise on The Logic of Criminal Investigation.”

By Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fashionable Nonsense as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1996 physicist Alan Sokal published an essay in Social Text--an influential academic journal of cultural studies--touting the deep similarities between quantum gravitational theory and postmodern philosophy.

Soon thereafter, the essay was revealed as a brilliant parody, a catalog of nonsense written in the cutting-edge but impenetrable lingo of postmodern theorists. The event sparked a furious debate in academic circles and made the headlines of newspapers in the U.S. and abroad.

In Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, Sokal and his fellow physicist Jean Bricmont expand from where the hoax left off. In a delightfully witty and clear voice,…

Book cover of Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

Why did I love this book?

This practical, informative, and hugely entertaining book is mainly about the role of journalists, big pharma, “nutrition experts” and others in generating our many false beliefs about medicine and our health. Along the way, though, Goldacre paints a vivid picture of why sloppy, irrational thinking, along with confirmation bias and social bias and framing effects, so deeply infect so much science even before it gets twisted and misreported by outsiders. A goldmine of useful cases and examples, with a simple moral: how much harder it is than it lookseven for those crowned with a doctorate!to think clearly about evidence.

By Ben Goldacre,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bad Science as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Have you ever wondered how one day the media can assert that alcohol is bad for us and the next unashamedly run a story touting the benefits of daily alcohol consumption? Or how a drug that is pulled off the market for causing heart attacks ever got approved in the first place? How can average readers, who aren't medical doctors or Ph.D.s in biochemistry, tell what they should be paying attention to and what's, well, just more bullshit?

Ben Goldacre has made a point of exposing quack doctors and nutritionists, bogus credentialing programs, and biased scientific studies. He has also…

Selected Writings

By Galileo, William R. Shea (translator), Mark Davie (translator)

Book cover of Selected Writings

Why did I love this book?

Few people have ideas of world-shattering originality; fewer still explain them in prose so limpid that the rest of us can follow the argument. I love receiving that gift in almost anything I read by Galileo. His writing also reminds us at every turn that great science—as his art much later came to be called—depends not just on those trite "observe, hypothesise, collect data..." recipes but, crucially, on thinking creatively about concepts. There's a man in full here, too: almost supernaturally brilliant, but also witty, defensive, cutting, proud, delighted, fearful, irascible. Of all people, of all time, he's on my top ten "wish I could have met" list.

By Galileo, William R. Shea (translator), Mark Davie (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Selected Writings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Philosophy is written in this great book which is continually open before our eyes - I mean the universe...'

Galileo's astronomical discoveries changed the way we look at the world, and our place in the universe. Threatened by the Inquisition for daring to contradict the literal truth of the Bible, Galileo ignited a scientific revolution when he asserted that the Earth moves. This generous selection from his writings contains all the essential texts for a reader to appreciate his lasting significance. Mark Davie's new translation renders Galileo's vigorous Italian prose into clear modern English,
while William R. Shea's version of…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the scientific method, philosophy, and evolution?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the scientific method, philosophy, and evolution.

The Scientific Method Explore 41 books about the scientific method
Philosophy Explore 1,307 books about philosophy
Evolution Explore 109 books about evolution

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Awesome Science Experiments for Kids, The Essential Tension, and Changing Order if you like this list.