Book Review: Free Radicals

With his new book, Free RadicalsMichael Brooks has done something which surprised me: he’s produced a popular science version of Against Method.

Against Method, if you don’t know it, is a philosophy of science book by Paul Feyerabend, published in 1975. It argued against the idea that science progressed through the application of a strict universal method, and caused quite the fuss at the time (it continues to, in places). Brooks is keen to distance himself from the more extreme ends of Feyerabend’s version of this view, but agrees with a central sense that, when it comes to doing “good” science, “anything goes”.

Subtitled “the secret anarchy of science” Brooks’ book argues that throughout the 20th century, scientists have colluded in a coverup of their own inherent humanity, building a brand of science as logical, responsible, gentlemanly, objective and rational when in reality it’s a much more disorganised, emotional, creative and radical endeavor. This, Brooks argues, is not only inaccurate but dangerous; education and public policy would be much more successful if science was only more open about its inherent humanity.

This picture of the anarchy of science is done with affection and a clear strength of belief in science. I’m sure some would be tempted to dub it Against Method Lite, but Against Method, With Love might be more accurate. The message seems to be that scientists are people who do amazing things, even though (and sometimes because) they take drugs, lie, cheat, are reckless, work on stuff other than what they’re supposed to, are horrible to their wives, fudge their results, are motivated by money or are simply a bit of a dick. In places, Brooks also emphasises the religious beliefs of many great scientists, and the way in which religion could sit easily alongside, even inspired, their research.

Personally, I’m unconvinced anarchy is the right word here. Messy and human is perhaps better. Or, as a colleague put it at a conference earlier this month: “just people doing people things, in people ways” (I appreciate this doesn’t make for such a sellable book though). Still, the result is a warm, engaging and neatly plotted trundle through aspects of the history of science which the more cheerleading heroic histories tend to avoid. In some respects, the book’s approach of short historical tale after short historical tale is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. There is a key difference though. Bryson’s book, when it came out in 2005, bugged me. Bryson is famous for his travel books, in particular a chatty style which talks about the people he encounters with a fair bit of pisstaking (affectionate, and often respectful pisstaking, but pisstaking nonetheless). But, witty as A Short History was, Bryson seemed to have left his ability to take the piss at the door of the Royal Society. It wasn’t a warts and all view of the world-weary observant traveller; more a cleaned up polished pictures you save for the tourist brochure. The scientific community welcome Bryson’s book with open arms. I was left thoroughly bored by its reverence. Brooks on the other hand, perhaps because he has a scientific background himself, doesn’t seem to be nearly so star-struck (and isn’t, I’d say, nearly so boring).

Again, let me stress Brooks’ approach is not “anti-science” in any way. But that’s not to say such an Against Method, With Love approach is without problems. I suspect many of my colleagues in the social studies of science would worry about this somewhat celebratory twist on the idea of anarchic science. They’d want more critique, more probing (because, I should also stress, they see such critique as a way to better science, they generally do this with love too). I also suspect Brooks’ focus on the big names of science – Nobellists and the like – would jar with those who eschew great men stories in favour of uncovering the less obvious, more detailed and often anonymous networked texture of science. Brooks might have produced an anti-hero popular history of science, but it’s still one with a focus on great men. Indeed, there is a way in which these stories of slightly crazy scientists simply constructs a whole new mythical image of the scientist, one that adds new and different forms of barriers between science and society. I’m not convinced science is necessarily a “bad boy” any more than I believe in the mythical branding Brooks aims to puncture.

(An anti-hero history of science isn’t a new one, nor are critiques of it. Rosalind Haynes touches on it in her history of the fictional representation of scientists; work that was neatly reapplied to non-fiction contexts by Elizabeth Leane. There’s a section of my PhD on the rhetoric of an anarchic image of science presented in some kids’ books too)

I’m really not the intended audience for this book though. I’d love to know what a more general reader from outside the scientific community makes of it. I’d also like to know what professional scientists think of the books’ image of their work, and how other scholars in the history, philosophy and sociology of science felt about this refashioning of their ideas. I did enjoy reading it though, I think the concluding points about the political worth of accepting the human side of science are, at the very last, worth more public debate.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Free Radicals

  1. John S. Wilkins

    Feyerabend did not endorse methodological anarchism as such – he simply rejected methodological monism. His “anything goes” comment was based on the common presumption that there was some kind of methodology, to which he objected that if we went and looked, we would not find it. It’s a very Wittgensteinian point to make: science lacks an essence.

    1. alice Post author

      Yes, the book really doesn’t get into the details of the philosophy, or history of this philosophy. In many respects, it’s a journalistic hook. Myself, I don’t think this is a problem in itself (though you might have a problem with the way the hook is taken, used to make different meanings) but I suspect it’ll bu others.

      Personally, I’ve always favoured Gieryn’s neat distinction between his focus on boundary construction compared to ‘essentialist’ views of science (not that boundary work captures everything…) but I do tend towards the more sociological end of these discussions.

  2. Maurice Spiers

    I am eagerly awaiting for delivery of this book – there is too little sophisticated but general discussion of the philosophical bases of ‘science’. and will certainly contribute to this site when I get it. Interested participants might like to look at my recently self published book, ‘My philosophical Investigations’ (availble in usual ways or from me dirctectly), which has chapters on this very subject matter.

  3. Pingback: You Are Not a Gadget | through the looking glass

  4. Ciarán MacAoidh

    I’ve taken the unusual step of looking for a review of this book while only halfway through. I’m also listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything in the car, prompted by the announcement of the Higgs Boson, to see what’s changed since its writing. I’m finding Free Radicals at once enjoyable and very annoying. Brooks doesn’t once correctly use the word anarchy, instead using it to mean chaos, messiness, humanness, rebellion, ignoring ethics and as you say, being a bit of a dick. I’m moving from an eye twitch when he uses the word to wanting to hit him quite hard for shoehorning it in as if he’s done a calculation on how often per 1000 words it should appear. Its similarity to Short History is astonishing at times, with *exactly* the same stories plus the ‘A’ word.

    That said I am enjoying the tales and find that ‘short story’ side quite fun. I shall be unstoppable at Trivial Pursuit green pieces of pie…

    The central thesis, that science has given itself a false image, is rather undermined by how easy it is to find tales of this “normal misbehaviour” and that much if it has been popularised already. Also by the fact that he uses studies of unethical behaviour published in Nature, which is hardly the place to hide. As the general reader mentioned above I think I already knew that an endeavour of the size and complexity of science is going to be awash with all kinds of personalities and therefore quite anarchic. Twitch.


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