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.

The books I picked & why

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Understanding Philosophy of Science

By James Ladyman,

Book cover of Understanding Philosophy of Science

Why 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.

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

By Henry M. Cowles,

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

Why 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.

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science

By Alan Sokal, Jean Bricmont,

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

Why 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.”

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

By Ben Goldacre,

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

Why 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.

Selected Writings

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

Book cover of Selected Writings

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in science, the scientific method, and philosophy?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about science, the scientific method, and philosophy.

Science Explore 134 books about science
The Scientific Method Explore 28 books about the scientific method
Philosophy Explore 327 books about philosophy

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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