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The Trouble with Science [Paperback]

Robin Dunbar
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Oct 1996

The 'trouble' with science began in 1632, when Galileo demolished the belief that the earth is the centre of the universe. Yet despite the bewildering success of the scientific revolution, many continue to hanker after the cosy certainties of a man-centred universe, and young people increasingly turn away from science.

In The Trouble with Science, Professor Robin Dunbar launches a vigorous counter-blast. Drawing on studies of traditional societies and animal behaviour, his argument ranges from Charles Darwin to Nigerian Fulani herdsman, from lab rats to the mathematicians of ancient Babylonia. Along the way, he asks whether science really is unique to western culture - even to mankind - and suggests that our 'trouble with science' may lie in the fact that evolution has left our minds better able to cope with day-to-day social interaction than with the complexities of the external world.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 222 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (1 Oct 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674910192
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674910195
  • Product Dimensions: 20.9 x 14 x 1.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 701,646 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

Powerfully polemic, Robin Dunbar argues that biological evolution has not equipped us to think scientifically. The blind watchmaker of evolution has 'designed' us to be social animals, so that we are good at assessing whether other people are telling us the truth or not (because truth-telling is the foundation of social life). -- Tom Wilkie The Independent Brilliant...[This] is actually a paean of praise for, and robust defense of, science and scientific method. Dunbar benefits greatly from his training as an anthropologist. He knows what scientists do, say, and feel in their labs, at their conferences, on their expeditions, and in their relaxed moments, as well as what they and their (often misguided) supporters say when they feel obliged to put on a public performance for the laity. -- John Ashworth Times Higher Education Supplement The general reader will benefit greatly from Dunbar's book because he explains, with vivid examples and historical excursions, what science is, what it does, what it cannot be, and why most of us find science--or even thinking logically--relatively difficult. -- Michael Thompson-Noel Financial Times A terrific book...Dunbar has fun with the argument that science is a cultural construction and therefore subject to fashion...Science is not a great way to get lots of money, or these days, even a job. But there are great riches in it, and in this book, too. -- Tim Bradford New Scientist Dunbar's unassuming little book provides a contrast, and an antidote to the excesses of social constructivism, mainly through his informed, insightful celebration of science. He explicitly addresses the Trouble with Science arising from the skepticism and hostility borne largely of ignorance and post-modernist philosophies of despair. His book may be seen as a volley fired in the 'science wars' that have been raging recently. -- Peter Slezak Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

About the Author

Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By Sphex
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Titles are important, and it's not often publishers get them wrong. The trouble with this one is that it too easily gives the wrong impression. Something like "The Trouble with Our Attitude to Science" would be more accurate, if more long-winded. Whatever the title's failings, there's no question about the success of the book's contents. Robin Dunbar gives his own take on the nature of science and along the way comments trenchantly on that particular culture war that is the battle between science and anti-science. There's also no doubt over where his sympathies lie: the pursuit of science "entails as much appreciation of the beauty of nature, of the elegance of ideas, as any artistic or literary endeavour."

Of course, science is not only about beauty and elegance, otherwise all sorts of fanciful notions would be clamouring for our attention. There's the little matter of the real world to contend with. Dunbar warns that we "cannot afford the luxury of allowing mystical nonsense to distract us from reality" and he identifies the testing of hypotheses as the "important cornerstone of science" that keeps us honest and in touch with that reality. (One clue that we're not mucking around with relativist hogwash is an epigraph from Wittgenstein: "The world is independent of my will".) "Correlations do not imply causes. The central problem in science, as in everyday life, is how to differentiate between real causal effects and the spurious ones that are due to confounding variables."

As consumers of technologies few of us understand, it's easy to be overawed (in the wrong way) by big science. Some science communicators would be content with a whizz-bang approach.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Trouble with Science 22 April 2012
By F Henwood TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
The trouble with science is that it still offends human pride. We know Galileo displaced Earth from the center of the universe and that Darwin showed humans and chimps share a common descent. But science generates resistance from the conservative/romantic right, as a harbinger of destruction of all value, and from the left, as `legitimator of bourgeois ideology'. It is the intellectuals rather than the public at large that are troubled by science (if opinion polls are to be believed) but when it comes to influencing policy, it's not a case of one man, one vote. The intellectuals have more clout. It's to this group that this book is addressed.

The trouble with science is not because empirical thinking does not come naturally to us. The first task Dunbar undertakes is to draw a distinction `cookbook' and `explanatory' science (p.17). Cookbook science is technical, practical observations about the world, rules of thumb that are used by human beings to plant crops, raise livestock and to fashion tools. Dunbar shows convincingly that humans across cultures everywhere (and from a young age) are hard-wired to use the rules of induction. The inductive method is not a western `construct.' Empiricism is genuine `human universal'. (p.58). Explanatory science is the higher-end, `pure' science that sets out to explain the world and doesn't necessarily have any technological utility, such as quantum physics. He overlooks that this type of science does have specific cultural origins. But to me that doesn't matter. Explanatory science does not stand or fall on whether its origins are `western' but whether it is true. That's the answer to the relativists.

The fact is that science that when it comes to explaining the natural world, science has no equals.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolute gem! 17 Mar 2011
Format:Paperback
I picked up a second hand copy at random in an Oxfam bookshop.

I finished a degree studying the History and Philosophy of Science in 1995, having set out in search of a physics degree. After the fact I read a lot about the conflicts between disciplines that informs Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" (2002). I read also about the reception of E. O Wilson's "Sociobiology" as so ably described in Ullica Segerstrale's "Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology" (2000). I read some anthropology, some psychology and a lot of journalism tangentially associated with these matters.

When I got to reading Dunbar's book, in 2011, I was thrilled by the quality of the synthesis of so much thinking about science and the way in which the scientific enterprise is unusual as a collective endeavour. Dunbar's book is even handed when engaging with radical opinion that conflicts with his central thesis but he doesn't pull punches. If an opponent's line of argument strains the credulity of informed opinion, he makes that plain.

Crucially, it's just bloody good reading. It's a delightful primer on the frankly fractious contemporary relationship the scientific enterprise, the societies that finance contemporary science and the other cultures in the academy that aren't science and have things to say about science.

I bought five copies at list price for friends just so that he gets some royalties. I'll send him a cheque to boot. A wonderful, wonderful book.
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8 of 23 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars When reason turns to dogmatism..... 11 Nov 2001
Format:Paperback
In an age dependent on scientific progress and scientific methodology, Robin Dunbar points out the woeful level of understanding of science, and particularly the lengths that universities must go to in order to attract students onto scientific courses. The ultimate cost of this will be a poorer grade of scientist, and a decline in standards in scientific education in general by osmosis. This book is intended to be a part remedy to this problem, by encouraging a greater interest in the subject.
As a potted history of the development of science and its underlying philosophy (for the book is less than 200 pages long), it is very readable. However, in trying to engender interest in the modern reader, it shoots itself in the foot on two or three occasions.
Science did not begin with Newton, and has always been used, even in 'pre-scientific' times, both by humans as well as animals. On one occasion, he points out the tremendous feat of memory exhibited by a native who, having crossed a desert in his childhood, was able to remember the way in adulthood from various markings en
route, and was able to lead an expedition on a 1000 mile journey in more or less a straight line. Such knowledge and the ability to absorb it, we are told, was essential to his survival, while we commit such information to computers and rely on technology to show the way. That is surely the point, which prevented one ancient King from accepting the written word from Thoth, on the grounds that it would make his soldiers
lazy. We are the inheritors of the latter, and our survival does not depend on knowledge we carry within us, but on socio-economic factors. Most people may know nothing about quantum theory, yet have an incredibly detailed knowledge of ISAs, PEPs, the meaning of capital growth and so on.
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Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's Easy to Miss the Point 11 July 2003
By Daniel J. Rose - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Current reviews of this book complain either that Dunbar's effort is too light, with a few interesting surprises, or that it is too focussed on elevating the perceived defects of science (reductionism) to unlikely levels of excitement and interest, and failing to observe that there is simply more to life than science. The first criticism neglects that this is, indeed, a focussed treatment, intended to show, without apology, exactly what we miss by not giving science sufficient importance in our lives, and in fact that it could be the difference between life and death itself. The second criticism completely misses Dunbar's central point that science is, in fact, one of the most basic activities of life, not to say of human life.
Whether it is instrumental or essential in itself, the reality is that science, in one form or another, remains the bulwark that saves us from superstition, which in the end could just save us from extinction. That it also, in its purest reality, engages us in a truly wonderous process of discovery should not be obscured by its analytic and reductive requirements, and that is also one of Dunbar's magnificently subtle and essential points.
Without belaboring what has become truely unsuccessful and often misleading popularization, such as trying to show how science somehow ultimately "proves" the reality of spirit, Dunbar manages to convey the very exciting, but just audible message, that the process of discovery in which science engages us is as much self-discovery as it is discovery of the world in which we live.
3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Could've been good with a little substance! 11 April 2003
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In the early and mid -90's, it seems that there was a push to popularize science. Authors came out in droves to write books the public could understand on what seemed beyond the publics understanding. Dunbar actually remembers, in one section, that it was not too long ago that any bookstore had a FICTION section (maybe even subdivided by type) and a NONFICTION section in which everything from physics to music history was shelved together. Those days are no more.
This book's goal is not only to tell the laypublic that science is exciting, worthy of attention, and not in the least the strawman that cultural relativists have set up for them. The problem (the big one, that is) is that he never really makes the point. For the first 2/3rds of the book (in my view, the most interesting bit), Dunbar gets no-where near that topic - talking instead about how humans from all cultures, and animals from many species have used a scientific outlook to solve problems. As the animal section is likely the most counter-intuitive, that is the best section here.
For a while, too, we also talk about (in a good, but really irrelevant chapter) about how chimpanzees have developed, to a smaller degree than us, the same kind of social thinking that we have. They run in hierarchies of rank, they engage in deceptive psychological trickery (obviously requiring a sense of relating to others) and develop complex social relations. Dunbars point here is that maybe evolution gave us much more ability to understand social relations better than the natural sciences. If so, that would very well explain the overwhelming popularity of the "human sciences" like sociology, psychology and law, but all in all, this is a very loose connection made by Dunbar. He never actually ties it in.
Another interesting part of the book, although a subtle one, is Dunbars decidedly instrumental stance on why we do science. I'm not sure how many scientists this will [annoy], but I know most scientists do not seriously hold instrumentalism. For Dunbar, science is instrumental in that we do it because our brains have evolved by making sense of (or observing sense in?) the world and gaining control over it by hypothesis testing. Dunbar really says no more about it than this, whereas most scientists figure that science (and with it, truth) are useful in themselves; science can be used instrumentally (technology) but truth is also good in itself. I agree with Dunbar.
In conclusion, an interesting book and a very easy read for those uninitiated with science. Even those who know science quite well, this will not be a complete waste of time as it will only take a few hours. Still though, if we are looking for good popularizations, go with Dawkins "Unweaving the Rainbow" (see my review) and Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World". On the difficulties of thinkilng scientifically, try John Horgan's "The End of Science".
2 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Rigidity passing for flexibility 11 Nov 2001
By Sam Nico - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In an age dependent on scientific progress and scientific methodology, Robin Dunbar points out the woeful level of understanding of science, and particularly the lengths
that universities must go to in order to attract students onto scientific courses. The ultimate cost of this will be a poorer grade of scientist, and a decline in standards in scientific education in general by osmosis. This book is intended to be a part remedy to this problem, by encouraging a greater interest in the subject.
As a potted history of the development of science and its underlying philosophy (for the book is less than 200 pages long), it is very readable. However, in trying to engender interest in the modern reader, it shoots itself in the foot on two or three occasions.
Science did not begin with Newton, and has always been used, even in `pre-scientific' times, both by humans as well as animals. On one occasion, he points out the tremendous feat of memory exhibited by a native who, having crossed a desert in his
childhood, was able to remember the way in adulthood from various markings en route, and was able to lead an expedition on a 1000 mile journey in more or less a straight line. Such knowledge and the ability to absorb it, we are told, was essential to his survival, while we commit such information to computers and rely on technology to show the way. That is surely the point, which prevented one ancient King from accepting the written word from Thoth, on the grounds that it would make his soldiers lazy. We are the inheritors of the latter, and our survival does not depend on knowledge we carry within us, but on socio-economic factors. Most people may know nothing about quantum theory, yet have an incredibly detailed knowledge of ISAs, PEPs, the meaning of capital growth and so on.
However, this is a minor point in comparison to the case he makes for science, by turning its negative components into a sort of charm. To do this, he defends the reductionist stance by defining two forms of it to the exclusion of a third, the third
being responsible for the lack of interest in science.
No-one would dispute the necessity of breaking up knowledge into compartments that produces useful information and knowledge, which is the source of the two forms of reductionism he refers to, but he makes no mention of the fact that science since the
Enlightenment is based on the unquestioned assumption of inertia, an assumption which by its nature excludes any reference to what he called the elan vital (quoting Bergson) and which he feels is responsible for so many problems with respect to the acceptability of science. Ultimately, scientific statements reduce to this principle, and must show some allegiance to it, even though it is impossible to derive any principles of self-activation from it, principles which by their nature transcend the knowledge of science. It is not the difficulties of science, nor its uncommon sense that makes
science so unattractive - it is the fact that it has nothing to offer the human consciousness with respect to the nature of its own self-esteem and self-worth.
All this is glossed over, however, in the attempt to make science more attractive. The problem is that ultimately, he is suggesting a kind of science `national service', an enforced learning programme that makes people more aware of the importance of science. The fact that people are voting with their feet to stay away from science is as much due to this form of reduction as it may be for the reasons he gives, but I tend to
favour the former. In that light, his book reflects a form of dogmatism one associates with thinking that has reached its sell-by date and outgrown its usefulness. Yes, science is important, but it is not everything.
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